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New Mexico's scenic Sugarite Canyon was once a part of the historic Maxwell Land Grant, which was established in 1841. The original land grant was inherited by Lucien Maxwell. By 1866, Maxwell had expanded the original grant to approximately 1.7 million acres, which was primarily used for cattle grazing. The expansion of the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad led to the development of water resources at the head of Sugarite Canyon, approximately six miles east of Raton, New Mexico. By the late 1800's, several small coal mines were in operation in Sugarite Canyon and by 1906, the Santa Fe, Raton, and Eastern Railroad Company had constructed a spur up the canyon, terminating just below Lake Alice. The town of Sugarite was established around 1912 with the construction of a post office and school. The name "Sugarite" is an anglo modification of the Comanche word "chicorica" the name of the creek that flows through the Canyon. In the Comanche tongue, chicorica means "land of the many birds." The majority of the first Sugarite workers were immigrants, typical of early coal mining operations in the West. The community included people from Europe, particularly Croatian, Irish, Italian, Polish, Scottish, and Slavic. Others came to the area from Japan and northern Mexico. The population varied with the fluctuations of the coal economy and ranged from 300 to 1000 people throughout the town's history. The closing of the Sugarite Mine was announced on May 1, 1941, and by early 1942, the mines were completely closed. The property was eventually sold to Kaiser Steel and was leased as grazing land until the mid 1960's, when the ownership reverted to the City of Raton. Currently, Sugarite Canyon is owned by the City of Raton and is operated under lease as a state park by the New Mexico Parks and Recreation Division of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. The New Mexico Abandoned Mine Land Bureau (NMAMLB) has been involved in mine safeguarding and reclamation efforts in the Sugarite Canyon since the mid 1980's. With the advent of Sugarite State Park in 1983, came a substantial increase in the number of people using the area for recreation. In order to eliminate the imminent danger to human life, health, safety and general welfare, there was an increasing need for hazard abatement and reclamation of the remaining abandoned mine areas. In the mid 1960's, a 15 year old boy fell to his death in a open air shaft in this same area. During the early years of the Title IV Program of the Surface Mining, Control and Reclamation Act, New Mexico abated most of the remaining priority 1 and 2 hazardous openings to the mine workings in the Canyon. It was obvious that something still had to be done to address the extensive coal Gob (waste rock and low BTU coal) heaps, which were badly eroded and gullied on the slopes of the steep walled canyon. Many of these waste piles were at or near their angle of repose, which represented a serious threat to hikers and other visitors to Sugarite State Park. These piles were also constantly eroding into the Chicorica Creek, causing toxicity and excessive sedimentation. Waste rock from the underground mines on both sides of the canyon was brought to the surface and dumped, creating steep mine dumps that, in some places, reached to the usually perennial stream, 320 feet in elevation below the eastern mine entry. Coal mine waste dumping eventually impacted a total of 22 acres. The five largest gob piles all have signs of one or more landslides - hummocky, irregular, flatter slopes below steep upper slopes - although site inspections and slope stability analyses has lead us to conclude that the slopes are largely stable from mass movement. Parts of the gob piles are dissected with v-shaped gullies, some over twenty feet deep. The coal mine waste is largely composed of shale fragments, with some sandstone. Weathering of the material has produced a soil high in clay content, with samples averaging about 40 percent clay. The soil is moderately acid with pH averaging 5.8 and mildly saline, with electrical conductivities averaging 4.5 mmhos/cm. The main deterrent to plant growth, however, appears to be sodium with sodium absorption ratios for the coal gob averaging 24, and in one sample as high as 43. This compares with generally acceptable SAR values of below 8 for soils with high clay content. Excess sodium results in poor soil aeration, slow infiltration rates, and causes serious nutritional disturbances in plants by affecting the availability of calcium, magnesium, and other ions required by plants. As you might expect, slopes on the gob piles are extremely steep, averaging 2:1, but are nearly vertical at gully side walls and steeper than 1:1 at landslide scarps, and eroding quickly. The site is in one of the wetter areas of New Mexico, receiving an average of about 20 inches of precipitation per year at a project elevation ranging from 6,900-9,000 feet above mean sea level. The mine waste piles are located within the Sugarite Canyon State Park, where the history of coal mining in the area is celebrated in a museum display, hiking trails through the ruins of the town site and to the edges of the mine waste piles, and reconstruction of the original mule barn and town post office. As part of a historic coal mining district in a heavily visited, publicly-owned area, the State Historic Preservation Office required that the NMAMLB reclaim the mine waste piles in place and without significant alteration. The objectives of the project are then three-fold (and to some extent contradictory); first, to improve water quality in Chicorica Creek, which is used for trout fishing and downstream irrigation, by reducing the rapid rate of erosion on the gob piles, secondly, to reduce the physical hazards for visitors of deep gullies and steep slopes on the waste piles, and thirdly, to preserve historic mining structures and mine waste piles. The design engineer for the project, John Kretzmann, was initially unclear as to how to proceed with the solutions to these problems. He made literature searches, primarily in soil bioengineering methods and in sodic mine waste remediation, and also installed a few small test plots to try to establish what might work. From the soil bioengineering concept of hedge layering, he hit upon the idea of densely planting trees and shrubs along contour to reduce erosion. Classical methods of treating soil sodicity include chemical amendments with gypsum or other chemicals, which replace sodium ions in the soils with calcium or other ions. These methods also incorporate large amounts of high carbon organic matter. Combining these approaches on slopes inaccessible to almost any type of construction equipment eventually lead him to the idea of embedding straw bales end-to-end along contour at nominal eight-foot contour intervals and planting native seedlings on one foot centers just above the resulting straw bale terraces. In addition to ameliorating the sodicity, the straw bales would also serve as temporary erosion barriers and would harvest storm runoff for the establishing of seedlings. Gypsum and bio-organic fertilizer were spread onto the 20-inch wide benches on which the bales were placed. On slopes, up to 1000 pounds per acres of gypsum, along with seed and bonded fiber matrix material was applied using hydro-seeding equipment. Observation of the initial, Phase I project on 1.9 acres in 1999, led to the addition of straw wattles placed on the top of the straw bales on slopes steeper than 1.5:1 in the second project. The Phase II project, completed in late 2000 on steeper slopes than the first project, encompassed 4.6 acres. From observation of the second project Mr. Kretzmann incorporated 16-inch diameter coir rolls in the third project on slopes between 1:1 and 0.75:1. The success of this approach is still uncertain. Phase III was completed in the spring of 2002 and reclaimed another 7.2 acres of gob. All species seeded or planted on the slopes are native plants. The species planted, primarily one-year-old 10-cubic inch seedlings and bareroot stock, have been quite diverse, including a total of over a dozen different species. The plantings have primarily focused on the use of New Mexico locust, skunkbush sumac, and fourwing saltbush. Other species included Curlleaf Mountain Mahogony, New Mexico Forestiera, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Pinyon and Ponderosa Pine, Gamel Oak and Wood Rose seedlings. Our contracts have required the contractor to guarantee at least 40 percent survival of the seedlings after six months. In Phase I, 55 percent survival was achieved and in Phase II, 67 percent. Wood's Rose, Skunkbush sumac, Gambels Oak and Mountain Mahogany have achieved over 70 percent survival after six months. No studies of longer-term survival have be done. The seed mixes used have also been quite diverse (containing up to 22 species). The most common species in the mixes used have been western wheatgrass, alkali sacaton, and fringed and prairie sagebrushes. The seeds were placed in a two-step bonded fiber matrix hydro-seeding application. Being extremely dependant on moisture conditions for success, the hydro-seeding results in Phases I and II have not been as strong as we had hoped for except on some of the flatter slopes. To stabilize gullies, several options were tried. Gabion drop structures were designed and constructed at headcuts at the top and bottoms of the gob piles. Live cuttings of willows and cottonwood and live cottonwood poles were used at the gabion structures near the creek to blend them visually with the nearby stream corridor vegetation. At the more accessible deep, v-shaped gullies, ponderosa pine trees and branches from lumber mill waste and forest thinning operations were packed into the gullies. In deeper gullies, the branches were wired to cross logs placed every seven feet. Sediment logs, twenty-inch diameter tubes stuffed with aspen excelsior fiber, were placed at frequent intervals across smaller gullies. This past summer, in the fourth season of growth on the Phase I area and second season of growth on the Phase II area, trees and shrubs planted when just a few inches high, are now visible from a distance along the deteriorating straw bale terraces. Seeded vegetation is strong along the flatter areas of the Phase I and II projects. The gabions, designed for 100-year, 24-hour storm events are solid. Sediment has built up at least at the upper ends of the branch packed areas and behind the sediment logs. Initially the project appears to have been successful in reducing erosion rates on the slopes and perhaps some progress has been made in improving public safety. As far as preserving the historic landscape, the gob piles have remained in-place with almost no alteration. The steepest slopes of the gob piles will be visible for a long time to come and the location of the gob piles will be discernable to observers through the differences in soil and vegetation composition. The cost of this reclamation effort has been high, approximately $1,325,000 including gabion structures and permanent stream crossings. Consider however that over five miles of straw bale terraces have been excavated and installed, and nearly 23,000 seedlings have been planted, almost entirely by hand. Still a good investment considering the mine scars are healing, the environmental damage has been minimized and the quality of the water shed has been improved. The NMAMLB recently received national recognition at the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Program's Annual Conference held in Park City, Utah. The Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining awarded the "Best in the Western Regional Reclamation Award" and the "Peoples Choice Award" to New Mexico for their outstanding reclamation on the Sugarite Canyon Coal Mine Reclamation Project. Mr. John Kretzmann, P.E., Chief Design and Project Engineer for the Bureau, also received a "Special Engineer of the Year Award" from the Office of Surface Mining, Washington, D.C. Office, in recognition of his innovative and effective engineering designs and reclamation successes.

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October 17, 2019, 9:07 am PDT

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