By JEANNE WILLIAMS

ROCKDALE -- Texas Parks and Wildlife has recognized Alcoa's Sandow Mine near Rockdale for its "innovative and ecologically sound management of wild habitats."

Alcoa was among individual ranchers and farmers from nine regions of the state and a wildlife management co-op in Lee County honored in the program aimed at promoting natural resource conservation.

Alcoa's lignite mine won the corporate foundation category, which has only one winner each year. The agency presented its seventh annual Lone Star Land Steward Award to officials May 29 in ceremonies sponsored by the parks and wildlife commission and its private lands advisory board.

"If large-scale natural resource conservation is going to happen in Texas, it's going to happen on private land," said Robert L. Cook, parks and wildlife executive director. Cook said that almost all land in the state is privately owned.

"These awards recognize some of the fine work that goes on and is our way of letting Texans know who is responsible for ensuring the future of the Texas landscape," Cook said.

Sandow Mine, situated in southwest Milam and northwest Lee counties, produces about 6.2 million tons of lignite coal annually in the production of electricity to power Alcoa's Rockdale aluminum manufacturing plant.

"It's not what's being taken out of the ground, but what's being returned that has earned Alcoa this special recognition," Cook said. "The company has demonstrated a firm commitment to not only reclaim mined areas, but also to manage and maintain excellent examples of the state's Post Oak Savannah ecological region."

Alcoa owns 31,007 acres, and the Sandow Mine is permitted to mine approximately 14,000 acres, so the majority of the property is not disturbed.

The reclaimed and undisturbed areas are managed to increase wildlife production. Livestock does not graze over 23,000 acres of the property to allow adequate covers for fawns, turkey and quail nesting.

Alcoa's reclamation goal is to restore the land to a state that is equal to or better than it was prior to mining. Restoration is a prime goal of any mining operation, but it is essential that after reclamation to provide the best habitat possible in which wildlife may flourish, officials said.

Restoration efforts include the reseeding of 10 species of native grasses and forbs, the planting of more than 450,000 trees composing 32 species and construction of more than 450 acres of wetland habitat, Cook said.

Alcoa has been under a parks and wildlife management plan since 1983 and has provided crucial native habitat that is lacking in much of the region, Cook said.

Thus, Alcoa maintains healthy and productive populations of white-tailed deer, bobwhite quail and Rio Grande turkey, as well as populations of wildlife such as the wood stork and timber rattler, Cook said.

The award was accepted by Senior Environmental Specialist Marty Irwin, and Public Affairs Manager Jim Hodson of Alcoa, as well as Alcoa representatives Bill Eckert, James Birkhead, Dick Burns and Aloma Walker.

The company has re-forested with 32 varieties of oak, hardwood and pines.

Alcoa has contracted with Down Home Ranch in Lee County -- a ranch benefiting people with Down's Syndrome -- to provide 50,000 tree seedlings and 1,400 six-foot-tall trees for the next five years for reclamation, Irwin said.

Forest areas provide cover, food and nesting areas for a wide variety of wildlife, including deer, turkey, dove, quail and songbirds.

Reclamation efforts have established wetlands, grasslands and pasturelands, in addition to a bee apiary where Alcoa clover honey is harvested.

Alcoa has one of the healthiest deer populations in Milam and Lee counties. It has established food plots of elbon rye, wheat, oats, yuchi arrowleaf clover and Austrian winter peas planted for winter foraging, with summer plots growing iron and clay cowpeas, joint vetch with alyce clover.

These crops have increased the population of turkey and white-tailed deer, as well as quail, dove, feral hog, raccoon and a variety of birds.

The company has co-sponsored bird watching days with the Texas Parks and Wildlife, and has sponsored employee-guest fishing days.

The company has co-sponsored birding tours and wildlife management programs in Milam and Lee counties, inviting Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts for tree planting, camping and woodsman-ship skills training, and has provided its deer management areas for training parks and wildlife biologists.

Additionally, the company sponsors Texas Mining and Reclamation Association workshops for teachers and sponsors twice-weekly public tours of the mine.

"Part of the award was actually a lot of things that were out in the native woods," Irwin said. "We have helped train Texas Parks and Wildlife biologists on different things out here, and showed the management techniques we were using.

"We are proud of what we do," he added. "We are trying to spread it around."

Alcoa's Sandow Mine has been recognized for its reclamation accomplishments by the Office of Surface Mining in 1992 and 1998, when the agency deemed the Sandow Mine as the "Best of the Best" in the nation out of more than 5,400 surface mines.

The Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Council named the property as one of 21 sites worldwide to receive its "Highest Habitat Certification" in recognition of the company's voluntary wildlife enhancement and conservation efforts in the mine, as well as on the operation's surrounding lands.

The Texas Mining and reclamation Association awarded Alcoa's Sandow Mine four "Awards of Excellence" in 1991, five in 1992 and three in 1993 in the categories of land reclamation, environmental research, special projects-wildlife restoration, technical reports and safety.

The Wildlife Habitat Council has recognized the area as a Certified Wildlife Habitat.

More than 34 known species of birds, including a declining grassland bird called dickcissels, and endangered timber rattlesnakes have been documented by a parks and wildlife survey. The survey included the Sandow Mine and land the company is seeking to develop as the 3 Oaks Mine in Lee County.

"Over a period of several weeks, they would count birds and mammals in the 3 Oaks area, and then count in the Sandow areas. We had a series of spotlight counts and daylight observation and some walking counts. We found we had about four times as many birds in the Sandow Mine and twice as many mammals as in the pre-mined area," Irwin said.

Alcoa is a member of, and several Alcoa representatives have been active in, the Lee County Wildlife Management Association, which won this year's top award in the wildlife co-ops category.

Wildlife conservation initiatives by the Giddings-based group and others produced buck deer harvest regulations by the parks and wildlife commission, in a six-county area including Lee County that will take effect this fall.

The association conducts numerous programs and field days on a wide range of habitat management practices its members have used.