Hope for Appalachia: Returning Surface Mines to Healthy, Productive Forests
01/31/14 by Juanita Teschner
Dr. Patrick Angel, senior forester and soil scientist for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in London, Ky., will speak at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 25, at the Center for the Environment building on the Catawba College campus. His presentation, “Hope for Appalachia: Returning Surface Mines to Healthy, Productive Forests,” is free and open to the public, but registration is required: 704.637.4727.
Juanita Teschner, the Center’s director of communications, recently talked with Angel. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: How much land has been affected by surface mining in the Appalachian region?
A: The best educated guess is that it’s about 1.5 million acres. A lot of that land has been reclaimed to productive pastureland or, in some cases, residential and industrial sites. A lot of wildlife habitat has been created, but not very much reforestation was done, which is kind of ironic because before the federal law, trees were the post-mining land use of choice.
Q: What law are you referring to?
A: In 1978 the federal law called the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) kicked in, and regulators and the industry started doing things in a different way, primarily focusing on land stability; in other words, trying to prevent landslides and massive erosion and sedimentation, and in the process the regulators asked the mining industry to do a lot of soil compaction. It was a golf course look, which is aesthetically pleasing, but it’s not what Mother Nature really wanted. As a result, we have a lot of land in Appalachia that is in a state of what scientists call “arrested natural succession.” Mother Nature will have a problem putting the forest back on these compacted mine sites for decades if not for centuries.
Q: So how much of the 1.5 million, which has been created in Appalachia since SMCRA, is grassland?
A: We’re estimating that it’s somewhere around 750,000 acres. It used to be forested land, which is a tragedy because the beautiful mixed mesophytic forests of Appalachia should be forest and not a prairie like you have in South Dakota. So realizing what the legacy was for the Surfacing Mining Control and Reclamation Act, my agency, the Office of Surface Mining, and the Appalachian coal states created this initiative called ARRI (the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative) in 2004. What ARRI is doing is very simple: We just want to plant trees. Period.
Of course, there’s a culture that has developed over the past three decades that says, “You can’t do that.” The response is “Well, we used to, in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s. Trees are growing really well and merchantable timber is being cut off Peabody Coal Company’s property in the Midwest and veneer-quality walnuts, yellow poplars and white oaks are being cut. Those trees grew back on old abandoned strip mines which mined coal that won World War II. So why can’t we be doing that, too?”
Q: How do you do it?
A: All of what ARRI does is science-based. We tapped into the scientists who are reforestation experts, soil scientists, mining engineers and forest hydrologists – folks who have developed a methodology for the industry to follow. It’s called the Forestry Reclamation Approach (FRA) – a very straightforward five-step method to minimize soil compaction and to avoid aggressive, invasive non-native grasses and legumes that would compete with tree seedlings.
Q: How much progress have you made in the past 10 years?
A: We’ve seen the industry plant about 85 million trees on 125,000 acres, which is a pretty substantial reforestation effort. That’s the forward-looking part of this initiative. We want the industry to use this FRA and stop the bleeding.
But there’s a backward-looking part to this, too. ARRI is also looking backward at the estimated 3/4 million acres of non-forested, unused post-release mine land that could be available for reforestation. The mine operators are gone, and the current landowners don’t have the money to plant trees on these mine sites and wouldn’t know how if they did. So ARRI is looking backward at the 750,000 acres of grassland. We asked for $400 million from the federal government to fund it, but the government is not prepared to fund a massive tree-planting effort like we did in the 1930s under the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) program. That’s what we really want to do for Appalachia. We want to create a CCC-type tree-planting movement. Just think about what the potential is – putting coal people back to work, using old D-9 dozers that are idle, which could do the ripping to mitigate the mine soil compaction and planting trees. Isn’t that exciting? That’s the story I’m bringing to your college.
Q: Who typically helps you with this effort?
A: We tap into the energy of young folks or anybody who has a concern. This is a very controversial issue – the issue of strip mining in Appalachia. A lot of people make their living from it. A lot of people devote their lives to fighting it. There’s a lot of negative energy that is swirling around this particular arena. What we have been able to do is turn that negative energy into positive energy. Instead of griping about it, people can spend that energy by volunteering to plant trees.
Q: How do you fund it?
A: The ARRI science team created a 501c3 non-profit called Green Forests Work to be its fiduciary organization – to concentrate on this looking-backward aspect of mine lands. The Appalachian Regional Commission has funded it so we’re off and running with tree planting projects on old mine sites – where there’s no one responsible anymore for the site other than the land owner. So we’re able to plant trees on these barren sites and engage partners and recruit volunteers.
Q: How has the volunteer effort gone?
A: Since we started doing this, we have had close to 8,000 volunteers planting over 1,500 acres of land. We broke over a million trees. That’s been done just through volunteers with no real budget. What we do is rip up these mine sites with a big D-9 dozer in a cross-rip pattern; in other words, it looks like a checkerboard. That ripping is designed to break up the mine soil compaction. It’s very similar to what you would do with a tiller in your garden in the springtime.
Q: Are there certain trees you’re promoting with this? I noticed on your website a reference to the American chestnut tree.
A: What we’re planting are high-value, native hardwoods, trees like red oak and white oak and yellow poplar, black cherry, black walnut and early successional species like dogwood and redbud. So in our tree planting bags the volunteers will have a mix of 12-16 different species. One of ARRI’s biggest partners is The American Chestnut Foundation in Asheville, N.C. The American Chestnut Foundation sees this effort of planting trees on mine sites as one of their biggest strategies for disseminating that species back into its native range.
They have been working over the past 30-plus years to back-cross Chinese and American chestnuts. The Chinese chestnut is resistant to the blight, but the American chestnut is not. What they have been able to do is to breed in the disease resistance from the Chinese into the American, which allows what we’re planting to survive, mature and start producing chestnuts. So we’re using these mine sites, both new and old sites, as the springboards to bring the species back into its native range.
It’s really a lot of fun. It’s so intriguing. It’s been identified by the United Nations as a model for other countries and regions across the world for a region-wide ecological restoration program. We’ve got national awards.
Q: You mentioned that the initiative covers coal states. What are they?
A: It’s across eight states from Alabama all the way up to Pennsylvania. It’s a big impact on Appalachia. Coal is an issue that is very pervasive, good and bad across Appalachia. We’re taking one little segment of it and working toward economic development as well as ecological restoration.
Q: What are your short-term and long-term goals?
A: The immediate goal is to grow this movement to develop this reforestation renaissance. And I’m using that word – renaissance – intentionally. Like I said, prior to 1978 trees were the preferred way of reclaiming mine sites. Then all of a sudden they disappeared and now we’re trying to bring them back. It was like we went through the Dark Ages where no trees were being planted and now we’re in the Enlightenment, thanks to ARRI. My short-term goal is to grow this so that we are stopping the bleeding from the active industry and are growing our looking-backward work – to make it an ecological restoration initiative that can sustain itself on its own.
The long-term goals? I think there is a real potential for resurrecting something akin to the CCC that helped pull our nation out of a very serious depression in the 1930s. I think we have the potential for doing that for Appalachia. There are ¾ of a million acres of sandbox to play in – literally and figuratively: flattened mountaintops, grasslands that look like prairies when they should be verdant forests. It’s an economic opportunity just sitting there waiting for Appalachians to work, plant, restore. Appalachia before coal had a forest-based industry. That’s sustainable. That’s where the science of ARRI is coming in to give the people of Appalachia hope.
Q: Do you have to be a member of a group to help plant the trees?
A: Anybody can join in on our volunteer tree-planting operations, whether it’s an individual driving up to Pike County, Ky., or a vanload coming from Catawba. This is a way that a person can contribute. We have an alternate spring break program where we bring in students from all over the eastern United States, from Vermont and Florida and all points in between. If a person has an inclination to get out and do something positive, if a person has a concern about poverty in Appalachia, if a person wants to support surface mining or complain about surface mining, this is an opportunity to weigh in on it.