The hope is that the grass germinates, takes hold and allows the slopes to hold water better, said Ben Carlson, a range technician with the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the Forest Service. That way rainfall won’t immediately run off the hardened soil and carry sediment into Coal Creek and ultimately to Crystal River.

Cows will be kept off the test plot next summer to help the grass establish itself. Grass on the test plot will be compared to an adjacent “control plot” that was fenced off and won’t be seeded or have cows on it. If grass comes in thick enough on the test plot, the project will likely be expanded, and cows will be used to revegetate more of the waste piles. The ground eventually will be available for grazing on a rotating basis for the Coal Basin Cattlemen’s Association. About 400 cows are already grazing in other parts of the basin.

Thirty-five cows and their calves along with 20 yearlings were enlisted for the experiment. They will be allowed to graze on the land for a few days. Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson said cooperative efforts such as the restoration in Coal Basin are how the cash-strapped agency must get projects accomplished.

The revegetation experiment is relatively inexpensive at $10,300, in large part because the cows were enlisted to help speed the nutrient cycle and get the grass growing, Carlson said. The project expenses include fencing, hay and grass seed, straw and some weed spraying.

Mid-Continent operated some of the deepest longwall mines the U.S. and closed the mining operation in 1991. Refuse from the prep plant has stacked in two piles. The smaller pile, where the revegetation project is taking place, is 60 to 80 acres. A 10-year, $3 million first phase of the rehabilitation of Coal Basin started in the mid-1990s. That focused on removing many of the buildings and equipment left behind.