Mining the Bluffs

November 2012

This is the frac sand mining issue I feel the most strongly about.  The hills and bluffs of Buffalo County give our landscape its character, and are one of the reasons so many of us enjoy living and visiting here.  And the animals and birds we see – deer, eagles, trout, turkeys, butterflies, bluebirds – depend on these wild lands.  Strip mining these areas would destroy these wonderful places, the animals that live on them, and completely change the character of the countryside.

Here are some views of our landscape now.

This is Praag Valley – the view we see from one of our bluff prairies.   It’s typical of many of the valleys – often called coulees – in Buffalo County.

At the top of nearly every south-facing bluff in our county, there’s a bare spot, with grasses but not many trees, that you can see on the hillside.  That bare spot is a prairie – a remnant of prairie vegetation that’s been there for the last 8,000 years.  We usually call them “goat prairies” or “bluff prairies” – steep sandy hillsides which can’t be plowed.

And those bluff prairie remnants are the exact spots where the frac sand mines will be built.

Our bluffs are protected – we have a conservation easement on our land, so they can’t be mined.  But most bluffs in Buffalo County are not protected.

Here are some examples of the kinds of places that are at risk.

This is one of our bluff prairies – we call it Sumac Prairie.  It’s very steep and difficult to walk on.  This is probably the reason its native plant community is so diverse – even the cows didn’t like grazing on the steep slope.

These tiny islands of prairie are all that’s left of the millions of acres of prairie and savanna that covered this part of the country until about 200 years ago.  Since then, agriculture and towns and cities have destroyed most of that prairie habitat.  Some of the few places we can see remnants of it are in these small goat prairies.  The plants and animals that live there are survivors of that long ago landscape.

Gray Goldenrod – a plant of dry prairies – in bloom on Sumac Prairie.


Whorled Milkweed and Harebell on Sumac Prairie


Great Plains Ladies Tresses – a native orchid that grows only on these dry prairie remnants


In the spring, the goat prairies are covered with blooming Bird’s Foot Violets.

I’ve spent the last 11 years planting prairies on our land – I’ve transformed 150 acres of what used to be corn fields into prairie.  It’s beautiful, and I’m very proud of it, but it’s just not the same as those ancient remnants.  That complex interconnecting web of plants and insects and animals can’t be rebuilt in a decade or two – it will take a few thousand years.

Once those bluff prairies are gone, the birds and animals that depend on them will disappear too, and we won’t be able to bring them back.

For some contrast:

This is a mine in Cooks Valley, WI – The photo is by Jim Tittle, who is working on a documentary about frac sand mining called The Price of Sand.  You can see the remains of a bluff prairie right at the top of the hill, just beyond where the cut has been made for the sand mining.


And here’s another photo of a frac sand mine – this is what one of those bluffs will look like as it’s being mined.  (The photo is from the blog Fight Against Fracking – an effort to pass a moratorium on frac sand mining in Goodhue County, Minnesota)


 Here’s a link to a video by Jim Tittle about the loss of the bluff lands.