From Mine Waste to Grassland, Arizona

One of the people who helped the Tiptons envision their ground-breaking project was Terry Wheeler, of Globe, Arizona. Terry had been planning for some time to undertake a restoration of his own and after the Tiptons’ success he finally got his opportunity. His test, however, was even more challenging.

Instead of dirt, the material on which he chose to perform his restoration was mine tailings, an 1,100 acre pile of it 300 hundred feet thick located in the Sonoran Desert east of Phoenix. The tailings were made up of rock dust crushed to the consistency of talcum powder and treated with a mixture of chemicals that included cyanide to leach out the copper and other metals sought by the miners.

This photo shows the first time hay was tossed over the slopes that formed the edge of the tailings pile. At the time no one was sure cattle would even venture onto the powdery stuff. Notice how deep the animals have sunk into it—in some cases up to their chests!

After more hay was spread the cows could walk on the mat it formed without sinking as deeply. By pushing the hay into the tailings as they used it for “flotation”, and by fertilizing it with the material from their gut the cattle created a soil layer up to a foot thick where none had developed in as much as 60 years of leaving the area to Nature.

After removing the animals and letting the mix of hay, tailings, seeds, and manure gestate, a healthy stand of grass grew to cover the 300 foot slope. Later, this cattle-grown grass rooted in one foot of cattle-created soil withstood a heavy rainfall while grass on an area reclaimed by a device called the hydro-seeder washed off. Again, Nature affirmed that the animal-based approach worked, and that it outperformed technology.

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