Illinois coal company works to turn mine lands to wetlands

FROM here, Burning Star No. 4 looks more like a prairie than a coal mine. Hawks circle in the distance. Geese and ducks are in the water. Sam Rensi, the mine superintendent, is looking at his feet. ``You know what that is?,'' he asks, bending down and pointing to small tracks. ``That is a coyote. You see a lot of 'em up here.''

Indeed, a lot of wildlife is returning to this coal mine, thanks to Mr. Rensi's efforts to build wetlands. Nationally, land development has destroyed an alarming number of these nature-rich, shallow-water habitats. (Report urges wetlands protection, Page 6.) But here in southern Illinois, Rensi is trying to make up for some of that loss.

``We had better be creating wetlands or there aren't going to be any,'' he says in his mine office, just a few miles from Cutler, Ill. ``We have the opportunity to create wetlands at no particular inconvenience.''

By law, coal companies have to return the land they mine to its original or near-original condition. Where possible, coal companies in recent years have turned increasingly to developing wetlands. In the East, the number of wetlands on mine areas is doubling every year because they can help purify the polluted water discharged from mines. Here in the Midwest, it's usually cheaper to restore wetlands than to restore several tons of topsoil for farmland. It's also good public relations.

``That's a trendy issue right now,'' says Doug Downing, land-reclamation supervisor at the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals. ``It's kind of tough to be against wetlands.''

Rensi, though, is taking the lead in trying to bring back wildlife to Burning Star No. 4, which is owned by the Consolidation Coal Company.

For the 33.8 acres of wetlands developed here so far, bulldozer operators contoured little islands for ducks and geese, then got off their machines to dig animal grottoes under strategically placed rocks. Workmen put up nesting boxes for wild birds and transplanted native trees. Dead trees were set in concrete and plunked down in the water so that hawks and other birds of prey could perch and hunt for food.

``It's a Cadillac-class of reclamation that is more aesthetically pleasing,'' says Jack Nawrot of the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

The extra effort seems to have paid off. After a year and a half of development, the new habitats have attracted numerous species. Ducks and geese wintered here last year, hatching their young, which will return this year, Rensi says. Two of the seven shallow-water areas have been stocked with fish.

Such efforts draw mostly praise from environmentalists.

``It's certainly good for wildlife,'' says Cathy Carlson of the National Wildlife Federation, based in Washington, D.C. ``Done well, it would be a tremendous benefit.''

Especially now. Wetlands destruction has continued at an alarming rate, according to national and regional studies. Once considered merely mosquito-infested swamps, wetlands areas were often drained for farmland or urban development. In Illinois, 9 out of every 10 acres of original wetlands have been destroyed, according to state conservation officials. Nationally, the scope of destruction has been almost as severe.

Wetlands are important because they help control flooding, purify water, and, in Illinois at least, provide a home for about 40 percent of the state's threatened or endangered plant and animal species.

Rensi and conservationists would like to create even more wetlands on reclaimed mine lands. But there's a catch.

Current state laws give special emphasis to agriculture. Thus, if one portion of a strip mine is rated as prime or high-capability farmland, an equal portion of the site must be restored to that capacity, even if the land was not being farmed beforehand. At Burning Star No. 4, for example, Rensi can create only about 100 acres of wetlands, along two creek beds, because most of the rest of the 4,850-acre site must be returned to farmable land.

Exceptions can be made, however, if a mine operator can prove to the state that his project would make better use of the land. Rensi wants to put wetlands in that category. Indeed, the state is moving in that direction, says Mr. Downing of the Illinois mining department. But local agricultural interests are resisting the move. The Illinois Department of Agriculture is very wary of losing high potential farmland. And farm communities don't want to do anything that would mean fewer farmers and a shrinking tax base.

``We have had enough land come off the tax rolls as it is,'' says Ralph Timpner, chairman of the Perry County mining plan committee here. Roughly 10 percent of the county is already off the tax rolls, and the committee is worried about a new wetlands proposal by a local mine company. Wetlands also attract geese, which eat farmers' winter wheat and import noxious weeds, Mr. Timpner complains.

Rensi and other conservationists concede the problems. But they point out that wildlife areas could be turned into hunting and fishing areas, already a $500 million industry in Illinois, while helping to stop the loss of the nation's wetlands.

``The mining industry has a unique opportunity to mitigate that loss,'' Rensi says, ``if we could get these two groups together.''

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