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By Neila Columbo
ASPEN, CO — Once an active silver mine in the early 19th century, Hope Mine recently transformed from a barren, abandoned plot into a verdant, restored landscape. SCGH explores the innovative biochar initiative led by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) that made it possible.
Following the devaluation of silver and the Silver Panic of 1893, Hope Mine became a largely forgotten, desolate knoll. In 2003, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) assumed ownership of the mine and began to assess the mine waste that had formed at the site in large piles of toxic rock. Although the Aspen Water Department found no evidence of danger at the time, the site’s proximity to Castle Creek raised concern: If a storm or other event propelled the slope-like layers of mine waste to erode, Aspen’s water supply could be contaminated.
In response to this concern, USFS and ACES formed a partnership to explore solutions for restoring the site’s landscape to benefit the community and surrounding forest environment. Among their considerations, cost-effectiveness was paramount; a traditional mine restoration could cost over a million dollars. After several brainstorming sessions, they began to consider an experimental idea burgeoning in the green energy field—biochar.
A byproduct of charcoal, biochar is created by burning wood products in the absence of oxygen. The substance not only holds the capacity to improve soil vitality, but it also acts as a carbon “sponge,” sequestering atmospheric carbon and thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While archeological studies indicate that the origin of biochar traces back over 2,000 years to the South American Amazon basin, scientists are now studying how biochar technologies can produce green energy and address global warming.
Realizing that the feasibility of biochar as a large-scale green technology remained in its early stages, ACES and USFS teamed up with a young Colorado-based environmental entrepreneur, Morgan Williams. At the time, Williams’ start-up non-profit organization, Biochar Solutions, was exploring the use of biochar for local projects. In 2010, Williams, ACES and USFS launched the Hope Mine Reclamation Project together.
The first and largest biochar mine reclamation initiative in the U.S. by any measure, the project was extraordinarily successful. Within the first year, the barren land flourished into a green hillside, new soil began to regenerate, and living plants began to spring.
Jamie Cundiff, Forest Health Program Director at ACES, observed, “It was quite extraordinary to see the transformation at the site of the mine, and the possibility for re-establishing vegetation and biodiversity to an area that once seemed so damaged.”
Cundiff added that the multitude of positive developments resulting from the restoration was inspiring. In the technical process of creating biochar, Williams’ organization was able to harvest and burn dead trees that have been associated with the growing problem of mountain pine beetles in forests throughout Colorado and the U.S.
“Mountain pine beetles are a complicated issue in the U.S.,” Cundiff explained. “While they are a natural presence in forests, their population has increased due to changes in climate, intensifying the possibility of forest fires. When trees are under greater stress, they are more likely to be attacked by the pine beetles and die. Unfortunately, the influence of human-induced climate change is affecting this balance.”
While the cost of transporting the dead trees prevented the Hope Mine Project from harvesting all their materials from the forests, Cundiff notes this as an area for progress. Researchers are currently developing biochar ‘blankets’ to lay directly on scrap piles of dead wood as a method of creating biochar.
Following the success of the Hope Mine Project, Williams’ Biochar Solutions grew from a non-profit start-up to a growing for-profit green tech business. In addition, ACES has begun developing its own small-scale biochar production system for use at its own sites. This system will enhance restoration effects by returning wood products back to the site in the form of biochar.
In a stirring speech at the Aspen Environment Forum in June 2012, Williams shared his experience with the Hope Mine Project and his vision for the potential of biochar. He recalls his early conversations with ACES and USFS, and how the possibility of reclaiming the mine seemed as far-fetched as the first moon landing in the 1960s. He pondered at the time, “Could we do this, could we turn the biomass from the mountain pine beetle into this biochar and put it into this mine site and regrow it?”
Given the triumphant restoration of the Hope Mine, the answer Williams, Cundiff, and their colleagues discovered … is a resounding “yes.”
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