SHERIDAN — Conservation organizations around the globe take various approaches to solving environmental problems. One operating in the West uses plants, and a local resident joining the team hopes the efforts will benefit reclamation work at the former site of the Acme power plant.
Edith Heyward, co-chair of the Sheridan County Conservation District, recently joined the board of the Bridger Plant Materials Center, which serves as one of 25 centers operated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. During the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture created a number of soil conservation nurseries throughout the country to grow and distribute plants for the stabilization of severely eroding lands, according to the USDA website. Montana and Wyoming together own and operate the Bridger center, and the NRCS leases the building and land, staffs the center and funds the plant materials program.
“Basically our mission here is to use plants to solve conservation problems,” said Joe Scianna, manager and horticulturist for the Bridger Plant Materials Center.
“We (develop plants for projects) like riparian restoration, windbreaks and shelterbelts (and) mine land reclamation, which is probably a big issue in Sheridan/Gillette areas.”
Historically, Scianna said the center has done a lot of work related to mine land restoration and revegetation and continues to still today.
Plant specialists at the center research and test different populations of plants, determining the most effective and hearty plants for the landscapes similar to the drier climates of Wyoming and Montana.
“We might be testing species or we might be testing planting technologies — planting depths, timing, alternate row plantings — seeing if we can improve the species that we’re using,” said Monica Pokorny, plant materials specialist for the USDA-NRCS.
Scianna and his colleagues found two plants to take hold especially well in areas for mining restoration in Wyoming and Montana: Critana Thickspike Wheatgrass and Pryor Slender Wheatgrass. Both are drought tolerant, winter-hearty and used extensively in the mining industry. The name Critana derives from critical areas — highly disturbed areas like mining sites — and development in Montana.
The center currently has projects in Gillette, Powell, Worland and Greybull and works in conjunction with the Sheridan Research and Extension Center Agricultural Experiment Station. Pokorny said the station director, Brian Mealor, serves on the plant materials committee for Wyoming.
“That committee works to share information on what we’re all working on and what we’re finding,” Pokorny said. “We’re trying to build on each other’s work.”
Heyward’s positions with the SCCD board and Bridger board member are beneficial to upcoming projects in Sheridan County. Recent work by the Bridger center in Butte, Montana, and Anaconda, Montana, for heavy metal contamination resulted in at least five plant releases for that project alone.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Targeted Brownfields Assessment in 2017 determined that various metals contaminate the Acme power plant area. Plants similar to the ones developed for Butte and Anaconda could also work for projects like the Acme restoration.
Heyward, who will serve a three-year term on the board of managers for the center in Bridger, said she won’t be involved in the “nitty gritty” of daily activity in the center but remains excited to get back in the industry.