Former strip mines turned into public haven for wildlife

Surfacing mining for coal in the tri-state area contributed significantly to quench the nation's thirst for energy, but it also caused irreversible environmental damage. Above, strip mines reduce the land uses possibilities for this section of land near West Mineral, Ks.

When strip mining for coal ended more than 30 years ago in southeast Kansas, thousands of acres of scarred land were abandoned.

For decades, steam and electric shovels cleared away the topsoil to get to seams of coal below. Long, jagged, deep pits marred the earth’s surface.

But today, at least 14,500 acres of former strip mining land has been turned into public fishing and wildlife areas. The land is managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. Most of it is in north-central and western Cherokee County, Crawford County and Labette County.

“It is one of the highest-used wildlife areas in the state,” said Rob Riggins, public land manager for KDWP in Pittsburg.

In the 1920s, strip mining companies started donating their abandoned land to private landowners, Riggins said. In 1981, Pittsburg & Midway Coal Co., among the last of the strip-mining firms operating in southeast Kansas, donated 8,000 acres to the state.

An eight-feet wide air vent dropping hundreds of feet below to a lead and zinc mine appears suddenly, without warning, in a wooded area south of Galena, Ks. Law enforcement have searched some of these shafts for missing people and have recovered murder victims dumped into the shafts.

“I think they wondered what they were going to do with that rough country,” Riggins said of P&M. “The land seemed to have very little value. It was difficult to revegetate and it just seemed to be an eyesore of environmental deprivation.”

The state built dams and water-control structures and revegetated areas with native grass, trees and shrubbery. “With help from us, the land healed itself over time,” Riggins said. “It’s some beautiful scenic areas.”

Called the Mined Land Wildlife Area, the fishing waters include catfish, bass, walleye and crappie. Habitats were developed for other wildlife, including marshes for ducks and other waterfowl that can be hunted.