UW Center Addresses Energy Extraction Issues

December 23, 2008
Two students working at restoration site
Reclaiming -- UW students Battuya Bayarmagni of Mongolia and Nicole Bird of Australia at a restoration site near Dubois.

The Wyoming Reclamation and Restoration Center (WRRC) at the University of Wyoming is addressing a diversity of natural resource management issues in the state.

The center's mission is to research, teach, serve, and share knowledge in restoring, reclaiming, rehabilitating and repairing disturbed lands. Much of this relates to energy development-affected land and ecosystems in Wyoming and beyond its borders, according to WRRC Director Stephen Williams, a professor in the Department of Renewable Resources. Overgrazed lands, burned areas and eroded sites also are included in its mission.

Many of Wyoming's energy resources are deep under landscapes dominated by grasslands in the eastern part of the state and desert shrubs in the extreme southwestern part of the state but mostly under large patches throughout the state dominated by sagebrush.

"The sagebrush steppe is a vastly exciting zone of continuous variability," says Williams. "There is rock art on many of the outcrops, ancient camping places of native Americans, springs hidden in secretive draws, fantastic eroded zones of sandstone and siltstone towers, and patches of aspen and limber pine hidden in snow-accumulation pockets."

The sagebrush steppe landscape is an intricate web of specialized plants, lichens, soils, insects, and wildlife that has developed in a high, cold, windy landscape.

"Reclaiming it is challenging throughout Wyoming due to highly variable climate, often poorly developed soils and slow reestablishment rates of desirable vegetation," says Williams. "Although there are techniques available that have had some success, failure of reclamation efforts is common. With the intense new energy development ongoing in the state, especially in the oil and gas industry, there is substantial need for reclamation procedures based on well-tested techniques. These are also called Best Management Practices (BMPs)."

Establishing and utilizing BMP-based procedures are goals behind comprehensive efforts of energy producers, reclamation companies, consultants, governmental entities and the university.

"I think we are all humbled in the face of so much ecosystem complexity, especially in the sagebrush steppe," says Williams. "The only way we can accommodate this variability is for all of us to work together and to share our findings and utilize them together in revegetation efforts."

In mid-March, Jay Norton, an assistant professor in the UW Department of Renewable Resources, and others associated with the WRRC, organized a two-day meeting to bring in energy producers, consultants, federal agencies, and the university (including the UW Cooperative Extension Service [UW CES]), to address the fundamental questions "what do we know and what do we not know about reclamation in the various ecological sites of Wyoming?"

Outlines for how-to-do-it publications that would be specific for given ecological sites, as well as publications that address some slippery definitions such as "what is topsoil?," were generated at the meeting, says Williams.

With accelerating natural gas development and continuing development of coal and other products catching the attention of the public and land management agencies, Norton and colleagues saw the need for and have received a grant from the UW CES to conduct an annual school on reclamation.

"Reclamation of drill pads, roads, pipelines, and other disturbances associated with natural gas development is hard in the characteristically dry, cold but often variable environments common in much of Wyoming," says Williams. "A site that is clayey and alkaline will require seeding with much different plant species than one that is sandy and non-alkaline. Local area climate is a huge factor, too. Average summer highs may be in the 70s, but temperatures may reach into the 90s. Precipitation averages 10 to 11 inches per year but could vary from 3 inches one year to 20 inches another."

There is a great deal known about revegetation in much of Wyoming. But there is also a lack of readily accessible knowledge about what works and what does not in certain areas like the Red Desert, says Williams.

"Although the overall goal is to maintain and enhance the wildlife resource throughout Wyoming, often overlooked fundamental resources are soil quality and a sustainable and stable plant community," he noted. "These are essential for providing forage for grazers and habitat for diverse animal populations. They also provide those basic resources essential to recreation activities in Wyoming and to the aesthetic landscape we have come to expect."

On the Web: www.uwyo.edu/wrrc/.


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