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'Returning this place to a healthier condition': planned Tar Creek restorative efforts seek to chip away at devastation

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Sara Ernst
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The EPA blog
One restorative project involves the use of goats to control an invasive plant

The Tar Creek Trustee Council highlights projects meant to restore areas in northeast Oklahoma terribly damaged by mining.

In a discussion hosted by Local Environmental Action Demanded last month, council members spoke on efforts they're involved in.

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L.E.A.D. Agency
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L.E.A.D. Agency Facebook
L.E.A.D. Agency's Martin Lively (center) speaks with Tar Creek Trustee Council members (left to right: Larry Tippit, Jay Wright, Suzanne Dunn)

Jay Wright, environmental programs manager for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, said one multi-year project involves approaching landowners near the Neosho River.

“The idea behind this one is we would work with willing landowners. We have to have willing landowners,” said Wright. “We would assist them in getting some of their lands into wetlands reserve easement.”

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a federal agency, would pay the landowner for the easement that would allow restoration of waterfowl habitat, said Wright.

After the rehabilitative work began, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation would come in and offer to buy the land to make it part of a wildlife management area.

Another project involves about 15 acres of the Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge.

To help endangered bats in the area, the tree understory would be thinned. Suzanne Dunn of the Fish and Wildlife Service said this is in line with history: the Ozarks used to have more open spaces.

The thinning of the understory will cause the sprouting of invasive plants as more light reaches them, but Dunn said another animal will keep things in order.

“One of the things that does make this a pilot project is we’re trying to do the removal of sericea lespedeza using goats instead of using herbicide. Again, we have endangered bats in the area so we're trying to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides as much as possible.”

Larry Tippit of the Peoria Tribe spoke on projects involving the introduction of mussels that naturally filter water to improve stream quality and an apprenticeship program for young people.

"Actually taking kids out from in front of the TV or their electronic games and putting them out in nature," said Tippit.

Apprentices would be involved in all Tar Creek projects, Tippit said.

Martin Lively of Local Environmental Action Demanded called the work an exciting step forward.

“To think we’re actually to the point where enough clean up has happened that we can take damaged parts of Ottawa County and the Tar Creek Superfund site and begin restoring them, begin the long, hard work of returning this place and the people in it to a healthier condition.”

More details on the projects can be found at fws.gov. Public comments will be accepted until Jan. 10.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.