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Restoring Life to Damaged Land

  • Dan Dagget
  • In the central Nevada desert, near the tiny almost-ghost town of Mina, lives a couple who are the most effective restorers of ecosystems I have found in more than twenty years of searching. Over the past few years I have been trying to figure out why so few people know about them.

    Tony and Jerrie Tipton can take land that is as close to biologically dead as land gets, and they can return it to a state of health, vitality, and diversity that most of us would call miraculous. They can do this with land that has been rendered ecologically comatose by abuse, overuse, pollution, neglect, or whatever, and they can restore it to the point that it blooms with grasses and shrubs and is reinhabited by birds, lizards, deer, bugs, and all manner of critters. Even more impressively, they can do this in the most difficult of conditions in the high desert of Nevada where ten inches of rain in a year is a “wet spell,” and three inches is more usual.

    Al Medina of the Rocky Mountain Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service went to see for himself. He told me, “If they [the Tiptons] had come to me and said they thought they could do something like this, I wouldn’t have bothered to laugh at them. I would have thought they were too crazy to laugh at. But they did it, and I’ve seen it, and it’s still there [three years after completion].”

    The ecological disaster the Tiptons tackled was a three-hundred-foot-high pile of crushed rock called a heap-leach pad. This pile consisted of low-quality gold ore that had been extracted from a pit and crushed to rocks fist-size or smaller and piled on a huge sheet of sloped, foot-thick black plastic with a collection basin at the bottom. A solution containing cyanide was then sprayed on the pile to trickle down through the rocky ore and dissolve the minute amounts of gold it contained. The pile was sprayed with this solution for several years, until the gold dwindled to amounts too small to make the operation profitable.

    At that point, the company sprayed water on the pile to wash out the cyanide. This was done in order to make the pile capable of growing enough plants so that the mining company could say it had reclaimed- the heap and avoid forfeiting the guarantee it had posted with the government in order to be permitted to mine the area.

    But there was no soil. In fact, there were hardly any of the fine particles of rock that are the raw material for soil. And the pile had literally been sterilized by a lethal substance-cyanide. This made it even more inhospitable to plants, most of which require some organic material in the soil in order to grow.

    The most serious problem was a crust of salt. In Nevada’s dry climate, a portion of every drop of the highly mineralized water that had been sprayed on the pile had evaporated, leaving behind mineral salts and covering the cyanide-sterilized rock pile with a crust of salt that made it almost impossible for plants to grow.

    The mining company had tried to reclaim this toxic rock pile with the best methods and machinery modern technology had to offer. Using a device called a hydroseeder, they had sprayed it with a mixture of seeds, fertilizer, and a plasticized mulch (the same sort of stuff highway departments spray onto road construction sites), and then they had irrigated it. After all this effort, the only thing that grew in any abundance was a nonnative annual weed named halogeton, which is poisonous to many creatures that might try to eat it. Because these plants are annuals, they died after one season. The desert wind blew away what was left of them, and the company was back to where it started.

    When the Tiptons asked for a chance to try their technique on the pile, the mining company figured it had little to lose. The tools the Tiptons chose could hardly be simpler-native plant seeds, hay, and straw (to add organic matter to an environment that had none), a few experienced trucks, and cows. Yes, cows.

    The Tiptons Try Their Hand

    First, the Tiptons dragged a length of railroad rail over the part of the pile they intended to treat, breaking up the salt crust. The rail also knocked the sharp points off the rocks so they wouldn’t make the cows footsore. Then they scattered the seed, spread the hay and straw, and released the cattle. The cows ate most of the hay and a little of the straw, and what they didn’t eat they trampled into the rocks along with the seeds and the microbe-rich organic fertilizer they provided from their guts. After a few short days of this treatment, the Tiptons removed the animals and let the mixture gestate.

    Six months later, a community of native plants had grown where the Tiptons had conducted their trial. More amazing than that, the salt absorption ratio on the treated part of the pile had been reduced to 3.6, well within the limits considered necessary for plants to germinate and survive, and well below the target of 10 required for bond release. The only explanation available was that the organic waste the animals had processed and injected into the rocks had created a soil microbial community that transformed the area.

    At this point you’re probably wondering why you haven’t heard of these two eco-restorationists. And you’re probably thinking that universities, governments, the U.N. must be ringing their phone off the hook trying to sign them up to hold seminars and workshops and conduct restorations.

    Why Disregarded?

    The Tiptons should be highly respected and wealthy, but they’re not. Instead they live in a run-down, purple Greyhound-style bus converted to an RV. The bus is rusting and faded. Its tires are cracked from the sun. One of the last times I saw this fading piece of kitsch it was parked in the middle of a scrap yard surrounded by various kinds of rusting mining equipment-evidence of the job the Tiptons have had to take up to make ends meet-mine salvage.

    The more I became aware of this astonishing discrepancy between what is and what ought to be, the more I was convinced that it had to reveal something substantial about the way our society works, or rather the way it doesn’t work, at least with regard to environmental matters.

    Perhaps no one’s beating a path to the Tiptons’ door because no one knows about them. But Tony and Jerrie have given presentations to dozens of forums, to a Secretary of the Interior, to congressmen, to senators, to government land managers, to college professors, to investors, and to audiences that have included leaders of environmental groups. Articles have been written about them. I included their story in a book I wrote that has sold out three printings and is on its way to selling out a fourth.

    The methods they use could be too artificial or too intrusive for the environmentally concerned among us to support. But the tools they use are all natural and organic enough to be bought at your local organic-gardening store.

    Perhaps these problems are already being solved by conventional means, so there’s no reason to solve them with animals and hay and hard work. But they tackle challenges for which technology and conventional thinking have failed –in some cases several times– and they have succeeded, in spades.

    Or perhaps the Tiptons may just be an anomaly. Maybe they truly can do what they do, but no one else can –like a high-wire walker. But that’s not true either. Others, hundreds, maybe thousands, have used the same methods the Tiptons use, and while most haven’t created successes of the same magnitude as the Tiptons, some have. These other successful restorationists may not live in a rusting RV like the Tiptons, but they do live in a similar state of exile and disregard.

    Attempting to Share the Message

    When I realized what the Tiptons had achieved, I made a special point of taking this information to my environmentalist peers. I showed them the cyanide rock pile example, along with others, such as a mine tailings restoration. In many cases, the response was positive. A member of a group who saw my slide show and then visited some of those same projects firsthand wrote back to the conference organizer: “You not only changed my mind, you changed my life.”

    But in presentations to people who work for or lead the groups that receive most of those billions that we spend on environmental issues I have been treated as an exile myself. When I showed those environmental leaders photos of what the methods used by the Tiptons could achieve, there was rarely a flicker of interest. It was as if I were showing pictures of dog tricks to a bunch of cat fanatics.

    This was true even when the people to whom I was making my presentation were involved in “saving” or “protecting” lands where similar problems were epidemic. Though they were faced with similar problems and were able to do little if anything about them, not one ever expressed any interest in trying the method to see if it would work in their case.

    I want to make it clear here that what I was showing these people was not chump change. Not only were these successes impressive solutions to serious problems, but they were solutions that were achieved in most cases by people whom we normally think of as being at odds with one another (ranchers and environmentalists, vegetarians and meat producers). That matter alone, in my opinion, should have piqued my listeners’ interest. In a world filled with confrontation and conflict, it would seem that a method that solves problems by bringing people together rather than by pitting them against one another should not have been passed over lightly.

    On some occasions, I would press the case. I pressed especially hard with one individual who I knew had seen some of these solutions in person. Before he got a job with a regional environmental group, he had even participated in a collaborative management group with people who used some of these same techniques. I asked him if there was some really tough problem his group was struggling with. “I’d like to help,” he said, “but lately I’ve become more interested in the idea of self-willed land, of what the land can become if we leave it alone. I believe that’s the only way we can truly heal the damage we’ve caused.”

    Leave It Alone

    This is the essence of contemporary environmentalism –this assumption that the only way we can really heal the land is to protect it from impacts created by humans: to “leave it alone.” This assumption, that the only way we can heal the land is to protect it, isn’t just the domain of activists in the environmental trenches, it is woven into the very essence of our society’s awareness of what we call “the environment.” It is so all-pervading and so ingrained that most of us don’t even think of it as an assumption. We think of it as a matter of fact, like gravity. That is why articles that deal with land issues treat the word “protecting” as having the same meaning as “healing” or “restoring.” It is why those articles never explain how protecting the land will heal it, because those two concepts are considered by so many to be identical. It is why we never hear about the ill effects of protection. There shouldn’t be any if protecting and restoring and healing are identical.

    Yet this assumption has brought us to the absurdity that the actual condition of a piece of land is irrelevant to determining if it is healthy or not. If it is “used” by humans to produce something for our benefit, crops or other products, for instance, it is considered to be unhealthy. This is true even if the “used” land is a virtual cornucopia of birds and fishes and other diversity.


    1. See Beyond the Rangeland: Toward a West That Works, by Dan Dagget (Flagstaff, AZ: Good Stewards Project, 1998).

    Dan Dagget is a writer based in Santa Barbara, California. This essay is excerpted from Gardeners of Eden: Rediscovering Our Importance to Nature. The book is distributed by the University of Nevada Press (877.682.6657).

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