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Riley Pass reclamation restores natural landscape and safety

Kurt Hansen is the District Ranger responsible for oversight of all activities on the Sioux Ranger National Forest
Kate Lundahl
Kurt Hansen is the District Ranger responsible for oversight of all activities on the Sioux Ranger National Forest

The North Cave Hills of the Custer Gallatin National Forest is home to a diverse natural landscape of sandstone bluffs, prairie grasses, deciduous forests, and ponderosa pine.

It’s a special place. A place of natural beauty and cultural significance.

Riley Pass is also a landscape scarred by strip mining.

“What they left behind is all the sedimentary geology in the Fort Union formation was not only left-over uranium in the coal seams and piles here, but the sedimentary layers also have high levels of arsenic, molybdenum and selenium – all of which are the other contaminants of concern that we are trying to target out here with reclamation. When they left, all of it was left exposed to elements. It’s been subject to erosion, running down the hill off forest and on to private land,” said Kurt Hansen.

Kurt Hansen is the District Ranger responsible for oversight of all activities on the Sioux Ranger District of the Gallatin National Forest. He explains the strip mining occurred throughout the 1950s and 60s to meet Cold War demand for uranium.

“I call it our version of the Gold Rush out here because there was a lot of exploration and some larger mining activities went on,” Hansen said.

Hansen said when he came to Riley Pass nearly 15 years ago, the damage left behind was immense, and the cost of reclamation so great he did not see much hope.

And then in 2015 the Department of Justice stepped in.

“The Department of Justice negotiated a nation-wide lawsuit settlement with Kermac Nuclear Fuels Corporation. A large portion of the money from that lawsuit settlement went to fund the work we are doing out here today,” Hansen said.

Of the $5 billion settlement, more than $150 million is allocated to reclamation of Riley Pass.

Peter Werner is a mining engineer who works for the U.S. Forest Service. He is the on-scene coordinator for the minerals program on the Custer Gallatin National Forest and the project manager of the Riley Pass reclamation project.

“We are very excited about what we are doing out here at Riley Pass, employing something called landform reclamation. What that entails is, we are trying to replicate what the natural landscape looks like,” Werner said.

The Riley Pass landform reclamation project is the first of its kind to take place on a National Forest.

“Historically, mine reclamation employs very geometric forms, long linear slopes, often using non-native materials – concrete, diversion ditches, rip rap ditches, terraces on these slopes. It’s been proven these require a fair amount of care and maintenance over the years. What we are doing here at Riley Pass, is trying to use the natural landform that exists around the site and implement that into our reclamation plan,” Werner said.

Utilizing historical maps, pre-mining photos of the area, and the surrounding landscape as a guide, reclamation designs are created with specialized software, and GPS-guided construction equipment, is used to shape the landscape to what it originally looked like.

“I mean literally, these guys are driving around in bulldozers looking at a computer screen that is saying “dig here,” “fill here,” all across these steep slopes out here,” Hansen said.

One of the first steps to landform reclamation in Riley Pass is locating the rimrock.

“There is a sandstone ledge that defines all the buttes in this area. …That is our anchor point where we begin all our designs,” Werner said

Reclamation work is currently underway on Bluff B and Beth Kalisiak, president of Young Gun Construction manages the team working to uncover the rimrock.

“Today we have Mick in the excavator, he is trying to find the edge and depth of the bluff so the engineering company, Tetra Tech can come in and design the area to pre-mining conditions,” Kalisiak said.

These towering sandstone bluffs, according to Peter Werner are more than unique geological features, for many, he says, they hold cultural significance.

“This is arguably one of the highest concentrations of historical and religious artifacts in the Northern Great Plains. It carries a great deal of importance to the First Peoples,” Werner said.

Since 2015, 120 acres of landscape have been reclaimed. An important aspect of the Riley Pass landform reclamation project is containing harmful minerals, so the land is once again safe for all.

Riley Pass reclamation is the focus of an upcoming Dakota Life segment and to learn more and stay up to date on the progress of this reclamation project, visit

News Buffalo & Harding County, South DakotaRiley PassMining / Pipelines / Oil / Gas / Energy
Lura Roti grew up on a ranch in western South Dakota but today she calls Sioux Falls home. She has worked as a freelance journalist for more than two decades. Lura loves working with the SDPB team to share the stories of South Dakota’s citizens and communities. And she loves sharing her knowledge with the next generation. Lura teaches a writing course for the University of Sioux Falls.