Chris Barton: Develop skilled work force to reforest strip-mined hills

Develop a skilled work force to replant strip-mined hills

December 8, 2013 

The Appalachian region is a land of contrast — people have suffered from poverty for decades, but the region abounds with natural resources.

Appalachian forests support some of the greatest biological diversity in the world's temperate region, but extraction of the region's abundant coal reserves has impacted the landscape.

There are about 1.5 million acres of surface-mined land in Appalachia that could benefit from reforestation; more than 400,000 acres of that is located in Eastern Kentucky.

Successful reestablishment of the hardwood forests that once dominated these lands will provide a renewable, sustainable multi-use resource that will create economic opportunities while enhancing the local and global environment.

Society at large benefits from restoration of productive forests, as they constitute an "environmental infrastructure" that produces services of tangible value to the nation and to Eastern Kentucky communities.

For example, forested landscapes help to maintain clean water and reduce flooding in rivers and streams.

Targeted reforestation can reduce forest fragmentation from mining, as needed to restore habitat for wildlife species that depend on large expanses of unbroken forest.

Reforestation with native species can also improve landscape aesthetics, thus enhancing the capacity of communities in coal-mined areas to serve as tourist destinations and to support tourism-related businesses and jobs.

Former surface mines may also provide opportunities for renewable energy applications. These lands provided coal for producing energy for a rapidly developing country and much of the infrastructure (transmission lines, roads, railroads) needed for renewable energy endeavors remain on these sites after the coal is extracted.

Establishing woody biomass plantations for energy production could serve as an inexpensive and domestic supply of electric power. New and emerging technologies that allow conversion of biomass materials to liquid fuels may also attract cellulosic bio-refinery investors to the region.

Forests are a renewable resource. By restoring forests where no forests currently exist, many economic opportunities may be realized that will not only provide for the people of Eastern Kentucky today, but will put those lands on a trajectory that will ensure that a forest is available for use by future citizens.

Putting Americans back to work in areas with high unemployment will provide an immediate stimulus to the economy.

The jobs would include everything from nursery jobs, equipment operators, tree planters, forest managers and wildlife biologists to those that may manage these sites for renewable energy and climate change mitigation.

In 50 years, a million acres of reforested mined land could provide billions in timber value and sequester millions of tons of carbon.

The Appalachian forest is one of the most beautiful in the world, is one of the region's most valuable assets and has played an integral part in the rich cultural heritage of the people who live there.

Developing a skilled work force to restore, protect and manage this natural resource is vital to the region's current and future prosperity.

Chris Barton is a professor of forest hydrology and watershed management at the University of Kentucky and president of Green Forests Work.

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