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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Mining reclamation enters digital age with help from NMSU students

How do you teach people with no prior knowledge of computer mapping to turn old paper maps of mining sites into electronic versions linked with up-to-date surface conditions? The U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining (OSM) funded a $25,000 project at New Mexico State University's geography department to find out.

NMSU range science student La Donna Carlisle digitizes an OSM map.

Although the purpose of the project was to develop a training program, both NMSU and OSM received much more than that in return. Five NMSU students gained valuable experience providing OSM with several hundred updated field maps. In addition, the training procedures developed could result in greatly accelerated mining permitting and reclamation processes.

The training program will teach minorities outside the field of Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, how to use the tools available to update old mining maps for permitting and reclamation purposes.

Reclamation is the restoration of mining surfaces to useful land cover, said David Garber, geography department GIS coordinator and head of the project. When a mine permit is issued the miner takes out a bond, which is released when the land is reclaimed, he explained. The land is evaluated at the beginning and the end of the process, and to declare reclamation the inspector must find the land comparable to what the surroundings are today.

To successfully navigate the reclamation process, OSM officials in various offices must refer to maps, many of which are old and have been photocopied many times, Garber said. The same maps also must be checked in and out by different offices, he added, drawing out the amount of time required to complete the permitting and reclamation processes.

The NMSU-OSM project will accelerate review time for the offices involved in permitting and reclamation by allowing different offices in the process to generate, review and update maps simultaneously, Garber said. After a Wyoming office instituted a similar electronic permitting system, he said, their process went from about 18 months to six or seven weeks.

The first step of the project, Garber said, was to create a training program and documentation for that training. He taught the students how to use GIS tools to digitize maps by developing different sets of instructions. He would then test those instructions on the students, he said, to see which instructions and software worked best.

"It was a new experience for me," Garber said. "I had never before had to work with people who had no knowledge of GIS or mapping terms."

During the first year of the project they returned about 230 completed maps to OSM's Knoxville field office. Garber said they probably could have completed more, but they worked on each map several times to test different sets of training instructions. They also worked out other kinks, he said, including dealing with people at a distance and determining what information needed to end up in the final maps.

The students working on the project gained experience in map interpretation, data base manipulation and GIS software use, Garber said. The students agreed.

"From the OSM project I have learned many tools that will help me in my future career," said geography major Liz Ayarbe, one of the participating students. "I have learned how to use many types of software, such as Arc/INFO, ArcView and AutoCAD. I also acquired skills in cartographic processes: reading and prepping maps and how to reference paper maps to digital and paper quadrants."

Civil engineering student Morris Muskett said, "My position with the OSM project has given me the opportunity to work with maps and software in a way that makes them more meaningful. My experience ... has increased my skills as a future civil engineer and using AutoCAD is a skill that potential employers prefer."

Garber said he hopes to continue the project this year with a new group of students. "We're shooting for another 500-map series," he said.