Anyone who drives a car in North America likely has
an engine block molded from sand. Fairmount Minerals supplies 400-thousand tons a year of industrial sand to manufacturers like Ford Motor. Fairmount prides itself as an environmentally responsible company. Now they’re going beyond what’s required to restore land for wildlife. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bob Allen reports:
Anyone who drives a car in North America likely has an engine block molded from sand. Fairmount Minerals supplies 400,000 tons a year of industrial sand to manufacturers like Ford Motor. Fairmount prides itself as an environmentally responsible company. Now they’re going beyond what’s required to restore land for wildlife. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bob Allen reports:
“Okay, we’ll go all the way to the east side of the property…”
Craig Rautiola comes from a family of Finnish rock miners in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He looks like he could have played linebacker on his high school football team. Now he manages four sand mines for Fairmount Minerals near the Lake Michigan shore.
“You can see a front-end loader on your right, it’s just doing a little cleanup work right now…”
Rautiola’s red Ford pick-up bounces over a rough track past a network of conveyor belts, pipelines, and silos, and 100-foot-high pile of sand. The 350-acre site is called Wexford Sand.
(Sound of heavy machinery)
Previous owners dug into the gently rolling hills to remove the sand, then left the land exposed, but Rautiola says his company has a different approach.
“We have a vision of the future that we can run a responsible operation and make a reasonable profit and provide a good product to society, but we can do so in a way that we can restore land to better than original. And we really believe that. I know that sounds like some marketing statement but we really believe that we can do a better job with this piece of land than versus the way we accepted it in the beginning.”
But to get at the sand operators still have to clear about five acres of woods a year. They used to put back the topsoil, grade the land, plant some grass and call it good. Now Rautiola says they’re getting more creative.
“We’re getting a lot more sophisticated in how we define restoration. Restoration today means getting creative with our topography trying to create water features, trying to get diverse with plant species, diverse with insect life.”
The restoration includes a series of ponds kept aerated to support fish and amphibians year around.
There’s an irrigated nursery where three thousand seedlings are under cultivation to see which ones will thrive.
Rautiola used to count success by watching deer and wild turkey return, but now he sees songbirds and shorebirds as indicators of restoration that’s working. That’s because birds require diverse habitat.
“This mature forest might be great for a scarlet tanager, but an indigo bunting would rather be over in the blackberry bushes. Over to the north we had over a hundred bank swallows just a month ago. We’re trying to attract other threatened species like osprey.”
Rautiola brought in experts to show him how to get more diversity on the site. One of them is Kay Charter. She started Saving Birds Through Habitat. The group runs a small wildlife education center in northern Michigan.
Charter says native species of grasses, plants, and trees produce the most diversity. They attract a variety of insects preferred by birds and other small critters.
“You’re going to have Yellow Warblers in here, you’ll have Common Yellowthroats in here, you’ll have Willow Flycatchers in here, you’ll have all kinds of things in there… Catbirds.”
Charter has documented forty species of songbirds and shorebirds nesting at Wexford Sand. She says that’s pretty amazing for an industrial site, but she insists the effort is necessary to lessen the impact on wildlife. She notes some worldwide populations of songbirds have declined fifty percent in the last forty years.
“I think it’s important for the future of our planet. We all have to be involved in conservation or we’re in greater trouble than we’re in today because mining does take something out of the land. But if you can put it back in a way that is used by many species then you don’t leave the footprint that you might otherwise have left.”
Fairmount Minerals has given Craig Rautiola free reign to restore the site at Wexford Sand, and he’s going all out with the effort because he believes it’s the right thing to do.
Kay Charter of Saving Birds Through Habitat hopes the company’s commitment catches on with the whole industry.
“I think it can give all of us hope that business and corporations and companies in this country aren’t all filled with greedy people at the top.”
On a ridge perched eighty feet above the floor of the sand mine is a stand of one-hundred-year-old sugar maples. Underneath the trees is a million dollars worth of sand in today’s market. And they say it’ll stay there. What they call “Maple Island” will be the centerpiece of their restoration.
For the GLRC, I’m Bob Allen.