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Five-year collaboration transforms mine into a wild prairie

CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. (AP) — A five-year study has turned a reclaimed Wisconsin frack-sand mine into a wild prairie.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls worked with the industrial sand-mining firm Superior Silica Sands and Chippewa County’s Department of Land Conservation and Forest Management to learn how sand mining affects the soil that is stripped away, stored and replaced when a mining operations ends.

Researchers hope that the findings can be used at other mining operations that are beginning to fill in their pits, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Students and Holly Dolliver, a geology and soil-science at UW-River Falls, have been working since 2013 to take hundreds of samples from land owned by Superior Silica Sands in the Town of Auburn. Dolliver said her students found that soil at the reclamation site was compacted in a way  that was similar to what happens on farm fields when heavy machinery is used. That sort of compacting makes it difficult for water to filter through.

The reclamation study serves an important function in the state, said Dan Masterpole, Chippewa County Land Conservation and Forestry Management director. He said that, in Chippewa County alone, there are now 85 sand and gravel operations that are in different phases of the reclamation process. Seven of those are large frack-sand mines. Land is being restored at three of them.

“I think we’ve got a very successful reclamation plot here,” said Masterpole. “I think the demonstration effort has served its purpose and in the long run what we need to collectively do is commit the resources required to assure high quality reclamation that is both sustainable and adds value — either as economic value, as working lands or ecological value, if it’s not put into an economic productive use.”

Researchers now hope to study the soils at the Chippewa County test plot for up to 20 years into the future.

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