Friday, May 30, 2014

Coal Creek

May 29, 2014 I went on a field trip to Coal Creek.  

We have hundreds (if not thousands) of old mines here and this may well be a solution for returning those scarred slopes back to what they once were- alpine meadow and grassland.

Photo Brian McMullen 
Soil Scientist- White River National Forest

No, you probably haven't heard of it but I hope a lot more people will hear about it and we can start this process throughout the Western US.

Here's an overview of the  Coal Basin Project

…. or as  Scott Snelson calls it "the biochar grazing nexus" .  Scott was District Ranger of the White River National Forest at the start of this project.  

Youtube is being uncooperative this morning- so you'll need to click. If you want to read the Aspen Times article on Scott without feeding the marketing machine then go to the link on a tablet or a smart phone.

The group yesterday was impressive. We had representatives from Pitkin County, the Town of Carbondale, The National Forest, the Roaring Fork Conservancy, Roaring Fork Water Shed Plan  and The Crystal River Cattlemen's Association to name a few. Soil Scientists and Geologists who have been monitoring the project were also there. The short version- this represented a lot of cooperation between Federal Government, County Governments (both Pitkin and Garfield), City Government, Private enterprise and non-profit Organizations.  Cooperation and collaboration between agencies and individuals for mutual benefit - what a concept. That may well be the most heartening part of this story.

We met at the Coke Ovens at Redstone.

and we carpooled up the Coal Creek Basin.

Here's Wayne Ives of the White River National Forest giving us an overview at our first stop. 

This was an area which was covered in mining "slag" 

Photo Brian McMullen 
Soil Scientist- White River National Forest

much like the Hope Mine on Castle Creek. 

Unlike the Hope Mine this area had traditional grazing on it until about 30 years ago.

So what did the "Coal Basin Restoration Project" do? They used Cattle, Compost, Cattle Stomp and Biochar to restore something which used to look like this:

into something which looks like this

What you're looking at is an acre which has 2 different treatments. Both involve cattle and both involve "seed stomping" one has biochar the other does not.

Here's the process. 

noxious weed control.
a 17th century cure for baldness, dog attacks and hemorrhoids but still a noxious weed.

(Weeds of the West- excellent book)

Then they spread 3" of compost  and then covered it with hay, "White River National Forest seed mix" and straw.  

Photo Brian McMullen 
Soil Scientist- White River National Forest

On half the compost had an additional 5% biochar  other than that the process was the same. 

Then came the cattle. 

Photo Brian McMullen 
Soil Scientist- White River National Forest

The cattle "stomped" the White River National Forest seed mix in, ate the hay and left the straw for cover (aka "litter). The cattle also left behind fertilizer and hoof prints (I'll get back to that later)

Take a closer look….

You see the distinct change in color in the soil?

That's the biochar.

That's moisture retention.
That's gold.

Compost, Hay, Straw, Seeds and Cattle *without* biochar.

Compost, Hay, Straw, Seeds and Cattle *with* biochar.

Each hoof print creates a microclimate which provides shade and a place for water to pool.

Here's the microclimate without biochar.

Here's the microclimate with biochar.

Photo Brian McMullen 
Soil Scientist- White River National Forest

Got it?

Okay…. up the road a bit… and this time take the cattle out of the process...
Start with what's left over from an avalanche on the road (shale washed down from the cliffs above)
..bring in the machines

to give you some furrows to impede erosion and give the water someplace to settle…

3" of compost with no biochar

3" of compost with 5% biochar

Photo Brian McMullen 
Soil Scientist- White River National Forest

in case you were wondering...

 what 1" of compost with biochar will do…

what 3" of compost and biochar will do

There are a lot of elements to this experiment. 

There are plots growing native grasses and forbs under controlled conditions. 
Photo Brian McMullen 
Soil Scientist- White River National Forest

(These "bioislands" were planted by Garfield County prison inmates.)

There are sediment monitors on the creek
(There is a lot of sediment in that water- I mean a lot…) 

and soil moisture monitors in the ground.
The tubes go into the ground for control,  non-biochar and biochar compost sections.

Soil moisture monitor at 2", 8" and 20" of depth.

Here's the data- the process doubles the moisture content 

(or more- I'll give you exact figures as soon as I get them).

It's our choice, slag and erosion or


Here's more information on the Cattle Stomp and  using the Savory Method to reverse desertification in the links; and here's info on Biochar from Morgan Williams at the 2012 ACES talk (youtube- get your act together please….) click here for the video.

Thanks to Mark Lacy for letting me use these reports from the White River National Forest and The Roaring Fork Conservancy:

Thanks to Brian McMullen for letting me use images from his PowerPoint presentation.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Groasis redux

Okay, one year later and where are we with the Groasis waterboxxes?

One bare root choke cherry from Cold Stream Farm has made it and is looking *fabulous*

in case you've forgotten this is what it looked like last June:

The teensy choke cherries which I planted last fall are also hanging in there
I didn't expect growth over the winter ...

and I didn't get it- but they're not dead and there is some green for Spring.    

The boxes are holding water well:

but I think if I put in anymore I'll silicone around the wick on all of them…

This one had root infiltration and sucked the water which should have gone to the baby choke cherries. 

The other thing I'm trying is planting a  third seedling in each box. After listening to "To the Best of Our Knowledge." and their excellent program on "The Secret Language of Plants" with Suzanne Simard I'm hoping for some cooperation between seedlings so maybe those who get more sunlight will share. (Here's what a bare root tree from Cold Stream Farm looks like when you get it.)

Overall, it could be better it could be worse. There's no question that if you keep the native grass roots out of the waterboxx that the seedlings or the bare root trees will grow. The other factors seem to be getting a good bare root tree to start which is tall enough to get some sunlight and making sure deer don't eat that little baby tree once it starts to turn green.

It's certainly cheaper than running irrigation over to a remote part of the property. It's really not that labor intensive; and it's a smart use of water. The box does trap snow and rain well. I don't know if the condensation is working as well in practice as in theory but the point is there is water year round. In June and July that's very important in the high country desert of the Western U.S. 

The dirt (and I use the term loosely- since it's really compacted clay) looks good- damp- holding water well- and under one box - *worms*!!! (worms are good).

My conclusion would be if you're not in a hurry to see full grown trees overnight this one is worth a try.