HEIRLOOM SEEDS SHOULD BE PART OF YOUR RECLAMATION PROJECT
Reseeding is more than a way to cover bare dirt. When done in a positive and creative way, reseeding and reclamation can help win community support and restore the original habitat. One good way is to use heirloom seeds in your reclamation project.
Peabody Coal used the introduction of heirloom seeds as a way to reach out to the local Indian community by reintroducing traditional plants that had become scarce. They contacted local Indian medicine men and herbalists and, with their help, identified plants that were considered critical to Indian heritage. These programs also have an added benefit of eroding a traditional base for environmental opposition. By promising to use the mining project to bring back some lost Indian culture, nearly extinct plants, or the original ecosystem, you can actually gain the support of some community leaders who might otherwise oppose your mine while preventing the environmental groups from gaining traction.
Small native seed groups that focus on collecting indigenous seeds that are uniquely suited for that particular climate and soil are becoming more popular. Many of these seeds and plants had nearly become extinct as hybrid plants had become the seed of choice for local farmers. By reintroducing these seeds back into the environment, the mine can make their reclamation vegetation more diverse and similar to the original ecosystem before large settlements changed the landscape.
One such group is Native Seeds/SEARCH (Southwest Endangered Aridlands Resource Clearing House, or NS/S) of Tucson, AZ. They collect, conserve, document and distribute seeds that were important to the cultures of the Southwest and northern Mexico.
Unfortunately, nature is fickle when it comes to reclamation. Environmental considerations like soil type, rainfall, and climate are critical in the success of the project. In the East, where there is adequate rain and plant matter decomposes, simply reseeding the land will start the land on the road to recovery. However, in the Southwest, the arid climate inhibits plant growth and even prevents plants from decomposing and enriching the soil. In cases like that, just simply picking plants indigenous to the general region may not be enough. The type of plants can vary based on the way the slope faces or the type of soil in a particular area. For instance, one mine bordering the mountains and desert needed plants that could weather the dry heat of the desert while withstanding the bitter cold that would often blow out of the mountains.
This is where the heirloom seeds come in. While we think of the Southwest as an arid, barren land, Native Americans were actually planting crops year round. Their seeds, a result of open pollination, created plants uniquely suited for that specific area. For instance, in Tucson, where it can go months without rain and temperatures can easily reach 110, the Tohono O’odham had a corn that would grow during the short summer rains of July and August. It was fast growing (maturing in 60 days) and the stalks were much shorter. Some of the plants grown by the O’odham are the most heat resistant plants available.
Many of the seeds saved are often due to happenstance. One such case was the seed collection of Homer Owens who 30 years ago gave NS/S his collection of seeds. His collection began at the age of nine when a part-Comanche prospector gave him a collection of native seeds. This collection had come from another Native American seed saver decades earlier. This collection of seeds that had been gathered, saved, and grown over a century represented 30 rare or unknown Native American corn and bean varieties.
In some cases, the search for heirloom plants has helped rescue plants that were once considered extinct. One such plant is panic grass, which is considered great forage for animals. It was once considered extinct (last seen in the 1930s). However, one of the co-founders of NS/S found some seed in remote Mexico and delivered some to the USDA seed bank. Now the grass, which is fast growing and heat tolerant, is available for mines who want to use native grasses for reclamation.
A wide variety of plants is also a benefit to other wildlife because it breeds diversity. It also seems to boost bee populations because the wider the variety of plants the bees have, the longer their time to gather food. This prevents the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that is found in areas with one type of plant life, and which is becoming a bigger threat to the commercial honey industry.
Reclamation is an art and the land is a canvass that those who love the land can create with. Heirloom seeds that are tied to local Native American communities are a way to enrich the project, create a more diversified ecosystem, and win more community support. By investing a little in heirloom vegetation, a mine can help local seed preservation and gain some positive publicity.