Sunday, November 20, 2011

Strip Mine Sojourn

After years of excuses, I finally visited Banner Lakes at Summerset State Park.  Developed on the site of an old, pre-reclamation law strip mine, it features a series of linear ponds and ridges that are the abandoned pits and spoil piles of long-ago coal mining.  Its originally moonscapish landscape softened by 80 years of natural succession, most of its spoil-pile hills are today covered with young forest; its pits have filled with cold, clear, sediment-free groundwater (a fact that has not escaped the notice of DNR fishery biologists, who stock it with trout).  Hoping to paddle my kayak on a day that was too cold and windy to be on Lake Red Rock, I explored this long-overlooked park.

Launching my kayak at a small boat ramp, I paddled down narrow watery lanes between low, wooded hills where draglines once ripped open the earth to mine its underlying coal.

Not all of the area has grown up with trees: numerous bare hillsides dotted the mostly forested landscape.  Suspecting that whatever prevented trees from growing might enable species suppressed by trees to thrive, I stopped to explore one of the larger barrens.

I hiked up a steep slope of crumbly black shale interspersed with erosion gullies and a scattering of small trees.  Reaching the ridgetop, I looked back at my kayak on the lakeshore below.

White-stemmed trees caught my attention, prompting a closer look.  With peeling white bark and ragged, rhomboidal leaves, they are some kind of birch resembling the native (but out of range) paper birch, but might be a look-alike European cultivar used in landscaping.  Regardless of their exact species identity, they were probably introduced as part of a revegetation plan and have since gone wild, reproducing in open, sunny barrens free from competition with shade-casting neighbors.

Their trunks were home to yellow, orange, white, and dark gray lichens and also appeared to be popular with home-making beavers. 

Beneath the trees scattered on the barren slopes, I spotted broom moss and still more lichens: powderhorns and pixie-cups.  Paradoxically, I easily found these latter lichens here but I rarely encounter them in nature preserves that protect pristine habitats elsewhere in Iowa. 


On the crest of the hill, I found a granite glacial erratic originally from the till that formerly covered the coal-bearing shale as "overburden" - somehow it wound up at the top of a spoil pile instead of being buried with its brethren boulders when the landscape was inverted by strip-mining.  It was thinly covered by still more lichens, including dark gray shadow lichen and pale green, disc-studded wall lichen.

A musical tune had been cycling subconsciously through my mind since I arrived and suddenly I recognized it as Paradise, John Prine's evocative lament about the destruction of a treasured habitat by strip-mining:

Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
They tortured the timber and stripped all the land
They dug for their coal until the land was forsaken
and wrote it all down as The Progress of Man

I was pleased to see that "the Banner pits" have progressed beyond their forsaken condition after 80 years of natural healing.  Who in 1931, looking out onto a black moonscape of spoil banks freshly gouged from formerly fertile land, could have predicted that the site in 2011 would become a forest and fishery?  Or even more paradoxically, that it would become a refuge and recreational park amid an expanse of intensive agriculture?  Or that someday a kayaking naturalist would explore it for hard-to-find lichens?

Although not representing a pristine natural community, Banner Lakes at Summerset nonetheless provides a non-agriculturalized and non-urbanized platform for the development of new kinds of "natural" communities.  For me, it illustrates that even highly disturbed habitats are worthy of protection as places where nature can assert itself in strange new ways.