The plan: Plant 125 million trees

Group wants massive program to reforest Appalachian mine sites

bestep@herald-leader.comAugust 16, 2009 

  • Special report

    In the last 30 years, hundreds of thousands of acres in Kentucky have been surface mined, and debate has raged here and nationally about the controversial practice of mountaintop mining in Appalachia. This article is the first in an occasional series of stories about what happens to the land left behind after the mountains have been mined.

A group promoting reforestation in Appalachia is seeking more than $422 million to plant trees on mountains that were cleared or leveled for surface mining, a program that could have far-reaching impact on the economy and environment of the region.

Leaders of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative are seeking federal stimulus money to plant 125 million trees in Central Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky.

The goal is to put back trees on hundreds of thousands of acres where they once stood, but which coal companies reclaimed as grassland after surface mining over the last three decades.

The plan could boost the economy in one of the nation's most chronically poor areas, ultimately providing an estimated 2,000 jobs for forestry technicians, tree-planters, bulldozer operators and others, backers estimate.

But supporters say the project also would provide benefits for decades to come.

Converting large blocks of Appalachian forest to grassland while reclaiming mountaintop mines has eliminated habitat for some species. Reforesting large areas would re-create the natural habitat as nearly as possible, according to scientists involved in the initiative.

It could also improve water quality in streams, reduce the potential for flooding, soak up carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and lay the foundation for an expanded wood-products economy, supporters say.

They hope the Obama administration will see the proposal as a chance to accomplish two goals at once with federal stimulus money: putting people to work and improving the environment.

"It's shovel-ready," said Patrick N. Angel, a soil scientist and forester with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. "We would start hiring people right now if we had money."

The proposal is from the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative. ARRI brings together scientists, regulators from the federal government and seven states, coal companies and environmental groups.

Scientists with the group have given a copy of the proposal to President Obama's green-jobs czar and have a meeting scheduled soon with the White House.

ARRI has been working for several years to promote wider use of trees, planted according to a scientifically tested method, to reclaim mined areas.

The effort is bearing fruit. The amount of land returned to forest after mining, or where coal companies plan to plant trees, has grown in recent years in Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia.

The new goal of the initiative, however, is to change the face of the region by reforesting areas mined in the past.

Though the initial plan seeks federal money to reforest 175,000 acres in five years, there could be 750,000 to a million acres available for reforestation in Central Appalachia, according to ARRI's proposal to the White House.

The group is seeking $15 million in federal money the first year, growing to a total of more than $422 million over five years for work in eight states.

In E. Ky., 500,000 acres mined

The scope of surface mining helps explain the significance of the proposal.

Since the late 1970s, coal companies have mined and reclaimed more than 1.5 million acres in seven Appalachian coal states, including more than 500,000 acres in Eastern Kentucky, according to estimates from a Virginia Tech researcher and the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources.

Coal companies typically have trees clear-cut before blasting away the tops and sides of mountains to uncover seams of coal.

In some cases, such mining has created level land for development in a place where building sites are in short supply.

Coal companies reclaimed much of the land, however, by planting it with grasses to create what they said would be hay or pasture land.

Hay-pasture land has been the second most-used type of reclamation in Eastern Kentucky over the last 30 years, behind a category called fish and wildlife habitat. Those sites also include grassy areas, along with trees and shrubs that create food for some types of wildlife.

In permits issued since late 1999, coal companies listed intended reclamation uses on 496,014 acres that might be disturbed during mining. Of that, the companies said they would reclaim 80 percent as fish and wildlife habitat or hay-pasture land, according to information from the state Division of Mine Permits.

Not all that land has been mined or reclaimed yet.

Agricultural use of reclaimed mine land is growing, but much of what was reclaimed as pasture the last three decades is now unmanaged and slowly reverting to scrub, scientists say.

The land ended up fallow for various reasons. It is in spots where it isn't practical to tend cattle or cut hay, for instance, or lacks adequate water. In some cases, it is owned by coal or land companies that aren't interested in leasing it for grazing.

"A lot of people call it wasteland," said James A. Burger, a Virginia Tech professor and leading researcher on how to reforest mined lands.

The reforestation proposal envisions putting trees not only on land originally reclaimed as hay-pasture land, but also sites reclaimed as fish and wildlife habitat, Angel said.

Forests become meadows

Scientists have increasingly argued in recent years that creating grassland isn't the best way to reclaim land mined in Appalachia, in large part because of the ecological impact of turning forested areas into meadows.

It eliminates habitat for species that need big blocks of unbroken forest, but creates spaces for species that like grasslands and the edge areas where fields and woods meet, according to studies.

For instance, surface mining eliminates habitat for the cerulean warbler, a songbird that needs large tracts of mature forest in Central Appalachia.

Studies have shown sharp declines in the number of cerulean warblers where mining has had the greatest impact in the region, said Brian Smith, a wildlife biologist with the American Bird Conservancy.

Creating holes in the forest — called "fragmentation" — also affects other birds such as oven birds, wood thrushes and Kentucky warblers. The edge areas allow predators such as rat snakes and cowbirds to enter the forest and raid nests.

Mining also eliminates habitat for other species, such as salamanders, in one of the most biologically rich temperate regions in the world, Steven Handel, an ecology professor at Rutgers University, said in a 2003 study of mountaintop mining in Appalachia.

Handel said sites reclaimed as fish and wildlife habitat don't approximate the ecosystem in place when they held forests.

"This is not anywhere near bringing back what was there," he said in an interview.

However, meadows and areas with a mix of shrubs, grass and trees provide habitat for deer, turkey, quail and other species.

Officials have used those areas to bring back a species of elk to Eastern Kentucky more than a century after elk native to the area were hunted to extinction; this creates new tourism and hunting opportunities.

And reclaimed grassland in Appalachia creates habitat for some types of birds whose numbers are declining elsewhere, studies show.

Some scientists and researchers don't think the trade-offs even out from an ecological standpoint, however.

Tom Barnes, a wildlife ecologist and University of Kentucky professor, said mountaintop mining in Appalachia has reduced habitat for native species, including some without other places to live, while creating habitat for species that are plentiful or not native.

"It fundamentally alters how that ecosystem works. You've taken away habitat from things that are declining and given habitat to things that are increasing," Barnes said.

Deer and turkey are "generalists" that can use various habitats, while other species need specific conditions to thrive or survive, said Smith.

"Although areas reclaimed using 'wildlife habitat' and 'hay-pastureland' options have provided hunting opportunities ... it has been to the detriment of habitat specialists that require intact forest cover of various age classes — numerous species of songbirds, salamanders, insects, mammals, plants, etc. — and overall ecosystem health has declined," Smith said in an e-mail.

Who chooses the reclamation style?

There are a number of reasons the forested hills of Appalachia are now dotted with large, relatively flat areas of grassland.

That's what landowners wanted in many cases, said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.

Under the law, coal companies can't surface-mine without a landowner's permission, and the owner has the right to choose which authorized reclamation approach to use after mining.

Coal and land-holding companies own a lot of property in Eastern Kentucky, but residents also own a good deal of the land that is surface-mined.

Many landowners want their property reclaimed as grassland because they think it gives them more options.

"They want some level land and some areas to graze a few cattle, horses, goats, etc.," said Bob Zik, an executive with TECO Coal, which has won several reforestation awards. "Many of these landowners have smaller tracts and don't see the benefit of hardwood trees that will not be harvested for 30 to 50 years."

Coal companies sometimes push a particular post-mining land use.

Terry Ratliff, a Floyd County chair maker, said a coal-company agent negotiating in 2008 to mine Ratliff's land told him the company would reclaim it as pasture.

"He let me know that was not a real negotiable point," Ratliff said.

Coal companies reclaimed a lot of sites as grassland because they saw it as the cheapest and easiest way to get back bond money they post to guarantee reclamation.

Companies had no other real options for years, said Donald Graves, a retired University of Kentucky professor and early leader in reforestation research in Kentucky.

That's because after a history of landslides and erosion caused by mountaintop mining, new rules adopted in the late 1970s caused regulators to focus on making sure land was stable after mining.

To achieve that stability, coal companies used heavy equipment to pack down the ground when reclaiming mined areas, then planted grasses that can grow in compacted ground to keep it from eroding.

That stopped landslides, but stifled efforts to grow trees because most species don't grow well in tightly compacted ground.

Putting down new roots

Researchers have since found methods to make sure reclaimed mine land is both stable and can support tree growth, however.

Scientists at UK, Virginia Tech and other universities worked with regulators and coal companies to develop a tree-planting process called the forest reclamation approach.

In that approach, coal companies still compact mined areas, but then dump at least four feet of loose rocks and mine soils on top, rather than smoothing and packing it.

That creates a loose growth medium for planting trees.

Researchers have learned things such as which types of crushed rock work best, how deep the material should be, and how to reduce erosion on the sites with ground-covering plants that don't choke out young trees. Scientists say mine spoil has nutrients in it, and holds water so trees have time to use it.

Researchers from UK planted the first series of test plots in Kentucky in 1996 at what was then called the Starfire mine in Perry County and later added more on Bent Mountain in Pike County, studying how trees grow in ground compacted to various degrees.

The studies have shown that trees planted in loose-dumped mine spoil survive and grow much better than on compacted sites. They even grow faster than in the thin natural soil of Appalachian hillsides because they can put down roots more easily, studies have shown.

"They just absolutely took off like mad," Graves said of the trees planted using the forest reclamation approach.

A number of coal companies have embraced planting trees during current reclamation.

Planting trees on sites where the ground was packed down and planted in grass 15 or 20 years ago, however, would require plowing them at least four feet deep to loosen the soil and rock.

Researchers have developed a way to do that using a large metal ripper — which looks like a large curved blade — mounted on the back of a bulldozer.

Ripping up old mine sites would be one significant cost in reforestation.

The best reclamation

Reclaiming mined sites with hardwood forests doesn't duplicate the conditions in place before mining.

But putting back trees gets closer than any other approach now available, and will allow nature to regenerate natural forest conditions more quickly, researchers say.

"The best reclamation is to try to restore the ecosystem that was there before," said Angel, the OSM forester, who works as a liaison between the agency and ARRI scientists.

Reforestation also creates a renewable resource on land that would otherwise be unproductive in many cases; soaks up carbon dioxide; and will provide economic benefits when hardwoods such as white oak, yellow poplar and black walnut grow big enough to market.

It also shows the potential to reduce flooding.

Many residents of Eastern Kentucky believe flooding has gotten worse because of how mining has altered the land, something the coal industry says is unsubstantiated.

Sites prepared for reforestation have a rough, pocked surface, so water soaks into them better and flows out more slowly than on smooth, compacted ground, reducing or eliminating flooding, said Richard C. Warner, a UK professor involved in reclamation research.

In addition, reforestation helps improve water quality below mined areas, researchers said.

Part of the reason is that forested land filters water better than compacted sites reclaimed as grassland.

"If you've got a healthy forest, all the other ecosystems are going to be healthier," said Chris Barton, a University of Kentucky forester involved in reclamation research.

A number of environmental groups, including the Kentucky Resources Council and the state chapter of the Sierra Club, have endorsed the reforestation initiative.

Some have not endorsed the initiative to make forestry the main reclamation use, however.

Doug Doerrfeld, a past president of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which opposes what it describes as "radical surface mining," said he is skeptical of the reforestation initiative.

Planting trees on mined sites does not replace the rich ecological diversity of what was there before mining, said Doerrfeld.

"In general, we don't think the science is far enough along to be doing this on a widespread basis," Doerrfeld said.

Joe Lovett, head of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment in West Virginia and an opponent of mountaintop removal, said he isn't convinced trees can come back on mined sites in the long run.

Some opponents of mountaintop mining have been reluctant to endorse the reforestation initiative because of a concern that restoring trees could be used as a justification for mining.

Scientists involved in reforestation research, however, argue that the push to plant more trees doesn't require a judgment on the controversial issue of mountaintop mining, but rather on the best way to reclaim land once it's been mined.

"Planting trees doesn't cause one more acre to be mined," Angel said.

Echoes of the CCC

The proposal for stimulus money to reforest large areas of Appalachia is an echo of the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps, which put young men to work in the Depression planting trees, building trails and doing other jobs.

If the plan wins funding, workers would perform other jobs in addition to planting trees, such as assessing sites to put windmills or solar panels to produce electricity, cleaning up trash and maintaining trails, according to the proposal.

Landowners would have to give permission to plant trees on their land. Supporters of the plan expect many landowners would welcome that opportunity, based on the response to pilot projects earlier this year.

The plan is to start with the owners of large tracts of land, such as coal and land-holding companies, and get their approval to plant trees.

Supporters think many landowners will agree to have trees planted on their land at no cost to them.

In case the White House doesn't fund the proposal, or doesn't provide enough funding, ARRI also is seeking money from large charitable foundations and from companies to plant trees.

"One way or another, we are going to be planting trees on old mined lands in Appalachia," Angel said. "I don't think it's a stretch to say that the ecologic integrity of the (Appalachian) forest is at stake."

Computer-assisted reporting coordinator Linda J. Johnson contributed to this report. Reach Bill Estep in the Herald-Leader Somerset bureau at (606) 678-4655.

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