At first glance, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about the gentle roaming hills at the Tifft Nature Preserve in Buffalo, N.Y.

The grass-covered mounds, which make up 42 acres at the 264-acre preserve, are a distinct shift from the otherwise flat terrain, with the highest one providing a view of the Buffalo skyline to the north and across Lake Erie to Ontario from the second highest point in the city, 634 feet.

Yet beneath the surface of this picturesque scene lies 2 million cubic yards of municipal solid waste. It was unloaded at the site from 1973 to 1975 when the Buffalo Sewer Authority transported it from nearby Squaw Island.

Motivated citizens who wanted to protect the area’s habitat successfully petitioned the city to convert the land into a preserve and restrict the landfill to a small portion of the area, according to David Spiering, a Tifft ecologist.

The landfill was enclosed; flowers and trees were planted; and wetlands expanded at the site, which became a part of the Buffalo Museum of Natural Science in 1982.

The preserve is now a haven for birds – more than 200 species have been spotted – and an assortment of other creatures such as beaver, mink, foxes and whitetail deer.

“The deer probably first moved into the site from railroad corridors,” Spiering said. “They live, breed and die right in the city of Buffalo.”

Across the country, gems like the Tifft Nature Preserve are thriving atop closed landfills and former industrial sites, turning some of society’s most unwelcome places into stunning outdoor postcards.

As residential and commercial development cuts into the amount of untouched natural areas, leaders are realizing that once-desolate locales can be transformed into lush sanctuaries for wildlife and city dwellers looking for a temporary escape.

Spiering said the museum still has the challenge of convincing some that Tifft has overcome its past. Before it was a landfill, the site was a dump site for the city and a Lake Erie shipment center, where waste from the steel and coal industries, namely slag and fly ash, were disposed for decades.

“It smelled bad, looked bad and was unsightly,” he said. “Now school kids are coming through and the trails are open seven days a week. [We had] to change the perception that this is an unclean place. It’s an urban gem.”

Tifft, along with other successful restoration projects such as the Grange Insurance Audubon Center in Columbus, Ohio, and the Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas, are located just minutes from the honking horns of each city’s downtown.

Tifft is three miles from Buffalo’s downtown; Grange is only a mile from the heart of Ohio’s capital; and Trinity is a mere eight minutes from downtown Dallas.

Heart of the city

John O’Meara, executive director of Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks, said Grange, which opened in 2009, was created on land that used to be an asphalt plant and vehicle impound lot.

O’Meara estimates the area was an industrial site for 150 years.

Audubon Ohio subleased five acres for the center, which is located within the 120-acre Scioto River Audubon Metro Park on the Whittier Peninsula.

The park features a 35-foot outdoor climbing wall, dog parks and sand volleyball courts. The center also has become a popular wedding spot, with 40 ceremonies already scheduled this year, as the staff looks for ways to generate revenue, said Christie Vargo, center director.

Grange also targets underperforming inner-city schools in low-income areas for its educational programs.

Vargo said the center shapes its lesson plans to fit the curriculums of the visiting classrooms. The strategy paid off at one school recently, where fourth-graders saw their passing rates on the science portion of the state assessment test jump from 8% to 48%.

“I think it’s a great use for a former industrial site,” O’Meara said. “You can take something that was really a rundown eyesore in the city and you’re turning it around and making it a major attraction.”

Bald eagles are among the 200 bird species that have been spotted at Grange.

At the moment, researchers are studying migratory birds to see how much body fat they are accumulating while making pit stops at Grange.

“What happens is that they migrate through from South America and Mexico to breeding habitats in the north in the spring and come back through in the fall,” Vargo said. “What they do is take advantage of stopover sites so they can continue their journey. We can see if they are gaining the energy to move on.”

Waste-to-sustainability

Dallas’ Trinity River Audubon Center, nestled on a former 120-acre landfill in the 6,000-acre Great Trinity Forest, has broken from its wasteful pedigree to become a model of sustainability.

The 25,000-square-foot center, which opened in October 2008, utilizes a rainwater harvesting system that channels it to 30,000 gallon underground cisterns. That water is then used for irrigation, said Ben Jones, acting center manager and director of education for Audubon Texas.

One area of the building sports a green roof adorned with prairie grasses planted in six-inches of soil that absorbs rainwater.

Even the parking lot, which is permeable so that water seeps into the ground, is eco-friendly.

“I think it’s a wonderful example and a wonderful message for the public and for guests that something that’s a real scar on the landscape, something that’s detrimental to wildlife and native plants and the environment, can be turned around to something that’s such a source of pride for the community and such a wonderful thing for humans and wildlife,” Jones said.

In order to turn the center and the surrounding landscape into an oasis for more than 130 bird species, river otters, wild hogs and coyotes, nearly 1.5 million tons of construction debris that had been dumped illegally for 15 years had to be removed.

The $50 million remediation process, which also included the creation of nine ponds and wetland chain systems, took about three years, Jones said.

“There was a court order saying the waste couldn’t be removed from the property, and it had to remain on the grounds,” he said. “The waste was moved out to the perimeter of the property and buried in proper landfills there. There are double-lined landfills on the edge of the property now.”

From pit to fit

Although the Vashon Island landfill in Washington state closed 10 years ago, it left a 200-meter-wide scar as its legacy.

The landfill’s operators needed cover soil, so they “borrowed” from the area and left it with a myriad of soil quality issues, said Sally Brown, a University of Washington professor whose research focuses on soil amendments.

Problems ranged from a lack of nutrients to poor water filtration that allowed grass and weeds to overtake the 5-meter-deep pit, Brown said.

“There was never any intention to give the soil back,” she said. “When you’ve taken out the top soil, you have problems getting anything but grass to grow.”

To restore the borrow pit, Brown said the university teamed with King County’s parks, roads, solid waste and wastewater divisions in September 2009 to create compost mixtures they could apply to its slopes.

The roads division provided organic debris from storms and the wastewater department sent biosolids.

Brown said eight different treatments were used on 20-meter-by-20-meter plots, with biosolids seeing the best results. The groups then planted trees and have watched as the soil has regenerated.

Brown said there are still a few spots that need to be finished.

“This land was part of a park on the island,” she said. “It’s much nicer to be in a forest than to be in a hole.”

Mining past

Brown also has done work restoring barren soils poisoned by mine waste in Bunker Hill, Idaho, and Leadville, Colo.

Bunker Hill was a mining and smelting site for much of the 1900s, which led to contamination from lead, zinc and cadmium.

The metals at the 600-acre site presented a bevy of problems for both wildlife and people, Brown said.

Birds that migrated through the area were poisoned when they ingested the soil while searching for food. Contaminated soil was also picked up by the wind and deposited inside people’s homes.

To establish a vegetation barrier at the mine and nearby wetlands in 1997, biosolids were mixed with wood ash to create a nutrient-rich foundation that ultimately led to a decrease in soil acidity.

The plots ranged from 1-meter-by-4-meters to 33-meters-by-33-meters. Brown’s team worked on the initial experiments, then the U.S. EPA took over and handled the larger scale treatments, she said.

“[The mixture] made the metals much less available. Plants were able to grow,” Brown said.

Mining near Leadville resulted in tailings being washed into the Upper Arkansas River, where it was deposited along an 11-mile stretch. In some areas, a salty crust developed where there was a high concentration of zinc.

Beginning in 1998, limestone and biosolids were applied to the area to foster plant growth and prevent runoff, Brown said. Rye grass and native seeds also were planted on the treated areas.

Brown said the river, which had been too contaminated to support fish, soon became a popular spot for trout and for fishermen.

“It’s really rewarding to take materials people think of as waste and make derelict sites beautiful again,” Brown said.

Return of the bison

In Illinois, an old friend may once again roam the prairie in the next 10 years.

Officials at the 18,500-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie – once the home of the U.S. Army’s Joliet Arsenal – want to reintroduce a herd of American bison to the ecosystem.

The Joliet Arsenal was a munitions site where explosives were manufactured from the early 1940s to mid-1970s, according to the Joliet Arsenal Development Authority. At its peak during World War II, workers produced 1 billion tons of TNT.

All of the property transferred to Midewin from the Army has had to meet federal contamination restoration requirements, said prairie Supervisor Wade Spang, which should be suitable for bison.

The grazing mammals disappeared from the state in the early 19th century, after overhunting and habitat destruction. By grazing, bison can help prairie plant life sprout anew, Spang said.

Prairie leaders are researching bison genetics to figure out the best location for them.

Midewin, which was established in 1996 and opened to the public in 2004, hopes to plant 75 bison on 1,000 acres. Five to 12 miles of fencing would be needed, and plans call for platforms and a 12-mile tram loop for up-close viewing, according to the National Forest Foundation.

“It will be on an experimental basis,” Spang said. “We’re just in the beginning stages.”

So far, 9,500 acres of the old arsenal are open for public use. People can roam the trail system on foot and go horseback riding.

Maybe, in the not too distant future, bison-watching can be added to the list.

“We have wetlands, areas with oak savanna and grasslands,” Spang said. “It’s quite picturesque.”

Contact Waste & Recycling News reporter Vince Bond at vbond@crain.com or 313-446-1653.

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