MARQUETTE - When it comes to its mining operations at the Tilden and Empire mines, Cliffs Natural Resources goes big - giant trucks the size of most houses, piles of waste rock that reach up hundreds of feet, more than 13 million tons of hematite and magnetite pulled from the Earth annually.
But Cliffs doesn't just go big on production and processing of ore. The company also goes big when it comes to restoring and reclaiming the land it mines.
In an effort to help raise local awareness of its massive reclamation efforts, Cliffs invited a group of local teachers to take a tour, bringing them down back roads to reclaimed areas of land most people who don't work for Cliffs never see.
Cliffs Natural Resources workers spray hay onto the sides of waste rock stockpiles inside the grounds of the Tilden Mine in?National Mine. The work is being done as one step in a land reclamation process which can take more than a decade to complete. The first three benches pictured already have grasses growing while the top two are still barren rock. (Journal photo by Jackie Stark)
"We want to give them as much of an in depth look as we can into our operations, and bringing them out to areas like this that's not normally seen is a good thing for us to be able to do," said Jennifer Huetter, director of public relations. "Being a good environmental steward is so important to the company. It's one of the top core values and being able to share this information with the teachers, who are going to bring it back to the kids in the classroom, who basically are our future leaders, this is a positive role for everybody involved."
The Friday tour took teachers inside a processing facility in the morning, where they learned what happens to the raw ore once it is pulled from the ground. From there, the teachers were given a presentation on land reclamation by environmental technician Mike Korvela, who is coordinating the Cliffs reclamation effort.
The company planted 75,000 trees last spring, Korvela said. It is planning on planting 100,000 more next spring.
Korvela said the company tries to do about 70 to 100 acres of reclamation annually and also works along with mining operations to begin reclamation efforts as soon as possible, since the finished product can take years to accomplish.
"The overall goal is restoring the land as best we can in terms of form and function," Korvela said. "We want to make sure we're reclaiming the land from a visual perspective for the community and wildlife usage of the area is very important."
The process has several steps, from layering the waste rock piles with overburden - the material that lies above a coal seam - to hydroseeding grass to native tree and wildflower planting and plenty of steps in-between.
The afternoon saw a busload of teachers trucked out to a reclaimed area of land inside Cliffs' property. Hundreds of feet in the air, teachers were treated to a sweeping view, which included an open mining pit and a processing facility as well as a smattering of fall color.
They were also able to get an up close and personal look at what reclaimed land looks like. Having not been told, most of the teachers would never have known they were standing on what was once a barren pile of waste rock.
Teachers on the tour said they were excited to see the reclaimed land, and will take the information they gleaned from the trip back to their classrooms.
"It's really cool to see both the economic side, where we get to see the mining in operation today and also see how they're taking the time to change everything that they had mined - like all these stockpiles -back into natural habitat for animals," said Lakeview Elementary School student teacher Lauren Veale.
"I think it's important for them to know that whatever they do they need to pick up after themselves, especially those second graders," said Aspen Ridge Elementary School student teacher Emily Carpenter.
Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, extension 242.