Abandoned Mine Land Transforms to Native Prairie

A former surface coal mining site is getting new life. The 15.4 acre “Brown” abandoned mine land reclamation site will be seeded with prairie grasses and flowers that are native to the local ecology. The seeding is made possible through a partnership with the landowner, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF), Pathfinders Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D), and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Division of Soil Conservation. Other project partners include the Marion County Soil and Water Conservation District, the Red Rock Environmental Education Fund, Marion County Secondary Roads Department, and the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining.

The seeding will take place this month, at the end of a 1.5-year reclamation project of the former coal mine. More than 75 native prairies species are included in the seed mix. The aim is for the prairie plants and roots to help restore and rebuild the soil over time.

“It is our intention to support landowners’ conservation and restoration efforts, when we are able,” says Ryan Schmidt, Land Stewardship Director at INHF, “In this case, we were excited to work with project partners and the landowners to steward this delicate land by harvesting and planting seed originating in Polk and Story counties. We are planting 16 acres of diverse, native, prairie on the project site and site borders.” Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation holds a permanent conservation easement on the project site and surrounding land. Their partnership on this coal mine reclamation will help protect and restore Iowa’s land, water, and wildlife.

Surface coal mines that ceased operations before 1977 were not required to be “reclaimed” by the operator once the mining stopped. This means an area strip-mined for coal was often left with large piles of the overburden that was stripped away so coal could be extracted. These are areas referred to as “un-reclaimed” or “abandoned mine land (AML).”

Project partners worked with the landowners’ vision for the site to design a landscape using a natural regrade. “The project required moving 134,000 cubic yards of coal mining spoil and restores the land to similar grades that you might have seen before the coal mining operation took place,” says Randy Cooney, Project Coordinator with Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, “the engineer from L.T. Leon and Stek Earthmoving, the contractor, worked together to establish a site that protects the North Cedar Creek from acid mine drainage and bank erosion. It features a meandering stream and a wetland.”

The purpose of the reclamation is to eliminate the remaining coal mining components that present a danger to the health and safety of the public and result in environmental problems. These include dangerous “highwalls” and large, steep spoil piles from mining activity that can be hazardous to people and animals traversing the site, as well as, exposed remnant coal shale leading to acid mine drainage, which in turn lowers the pH in receiving waterbodies that negatively affects aquatic life and reduces biodiversity. In addition, acidic soils do not support the growth of vegetation so landscapes look barren and the soil continues to runoff without vegetation to hold it in place.

While reclamation provides important environmental benefits, it’s also expensive. Pathfinders RC&D, in partnership with the Marion Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD), received a Watershed Cooperative Agreement grant from the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining. The $100,000 grant was awarded to help fund reclamation of the “Brown” AML site.

The $100,000 grant was leveraged with an additional nearly $300,000 to complete the project. “Iowa has approximately 300 un-reclaimed mine sites affecting 12-13,000 acres. To date, we have partnered on more than 40 AML projects in six counties,” says Pathfinders RC&D Executive Director Anna Bruen. “It’s very rewarding to see the dramatic changes before and after reclamation. It is also expensive. With reclamation costing $15,000 - $20,000 per acre, every grant dollar secured helps complete more of this important work in Iowa.”

To learn more, contact Pathfinders RC&D by calling 641-472-6177 or visit