Previous efforts to restore former coal mine sites in Appalachia have left behind vast swaths of unproductive land. Now, a group of nonprofits and scientists are working to restore native trees to the region — even if it means starting the reclamation process from scratch.
Author: Elizabeth McGowan | Published: December 14, 2017
Near the top of Cheat Mountain in West Virginia, bulldozer operator Bill Moore gazes down a steep slope littered with toppled conifers. Tangled roots and angled boulders protrude from the slate-colored soil, and the earth is crisscrossed with deep gouges.
“Anywhere else I’ve ever worked,” Moore says, “if I did what I did here, I’d be fired.”
Moore is working for Green Forests Work, a small nonprofit, as part of a project to rehabilitate a rare red spruce-dominant forest on 2,000 acres that were mined for coal in the 1970s and 1980s. The mine became part of the Monongahela National Forest in 1989 when the U.S. Forest Service purchased more than 40,000 contiguous acres known as the Mower Tract.
Moore and other bulldozer operators hired by the nonprofit first knock down non-native Norway spruce and undesirable red pine. Then they score the heavily compacted dirt with three-foot-long steel blades; openings formed by this “deep ripping” allow newly planted native saplings, shrubs, and flowering plants to take root and thrive. The downed trees are left in place to curb erosion, build soil, and provide brushy habitat for birds and mammals.
“Ripping so deep might seem extreme, but it’s the only way to give these native trees a chance,” says Chris Barton, co-founder of Green Forests Work and a professor at the University of Kentucky who specializes in forest hydrology and watershed management. “What’s on top of this mine site isn’t soil. It’s the spoil created when rock was blown up to expose the coal seam, and it’s really compacted.”
Such aggressive bulldozing is part of a new and evolving approach to healing forests destroyed by decades of surface coal mining in Appalachia, from Alabama to Pennsylvania. These lands were supposed to have been reclaimed in recent decades under the 1977 federal Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act. But scientists and conservationists say that many of those reclamation efforts were failed or half-hearted efforts that did little more than throw dirt, mining debris, grass, and non-native trees over scarred lands.
Now, Green Forests Work and other groups are attempting ecological do-overs with the aim of restoring native forests on large swaths of previously reclaimed public and private lands throughout Appalachia. The deep-ripping technique developed by Barton, with support from a team of other scientists, involves uprooting the non-native trees and grasses planted by coal companies and starting the entire land restoration process from scratch.
At 2,000 acres, Cheat Mountain is Green Forests Work’s largest undertaking since it began operating as a nonprofit in 2013. Barton has partnered with public and private funders to coordinate the planting of more than 2 million trees on 3,300-plus acres in Appalachia. Other former mining sites that it is tackling include a 130-acre plot within the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pa., the former mine site where one of the four hijacked planes crashed on Sept. 11, 2001; a 110-acre site near Fishtrap Lake in Pike County, Ky.; and a 86-acre area within the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area in eastern Ohio. These and other planned restoration sites are part of an estimated 1 million acres that the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) has designated as legacy coal mine sites.