Jen Richter pushed the point of the narrow shovel into the dirt on a Breathitt County hillside and rocked it back and forth to make a hole a few inches deep.
Maddie Roberts put in a spindly American chestnut seedling, making sure the roots weren't curled.
Richter filled the hole, and there was one more tree planted in the effort to undo decades of surface-mining reclamation in Eastern Kentucky that left large tracts of grassland within one of the planet's most diverse forests.
"It would be nice to actually see a forest where generations and generations can come and enjoy it and reap the benefits," said Roberts, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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That's the goal of Green Forests Work, a nonprofit set up to re-establish healthy forests on surface-mined land in Eastern Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia.
The scale of mining in the region helps explain the mission.
Researchers have estimated that coal companies strip-mined and reclaimed more than 1.5 million acres in Appalachia since the late 1970s, including several hundred thousand acres in Eastern Kentucky.
Much of that land was forested before the companies cleared trees and blasted away the tops and sides of steep slopes to uncover coal.
In reclaiming the land, companies often planted grasses and plants not native to Eastern Kentucky to control erosion. That converted hundreds of thousands of acres of woodland to open sites, eliminating habitat for some species and altering the natural ecology.
"There's not much biodiversity on a golf course," said Patrick Angel, a senior forester and soil scientist with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement who is involved in reforestation work.
And because one key goal of federal surface-mining rules adopted in 1977 was to stop erosion and landslides, regulators began having coal companies use heavy equipment to pack rock and dirt back on the mined areas. It's difficult for many types of trees to grow in that tightly compacted ground.
Angel said regulators and coal companies used the best reclamation techniques they knew at the time.
However, researchers at the University of Kentucky, Virginia Tech and other schools ultimately figured out how to make sure reclaimed mine land is stable but can also grow trees native to Appalachia.
Reforestation advocates began pushing more than a decade ago for coal companies to make tree-planting their primary reclamation method.
That effort came together under the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, or ARRI. The group includes researchers, regulators, environmental groups and members of the coal industry, and has had significant success changing reclamation practices.
Since 2005, companies have planted 95 million trees in reclaiming 140,000 acres after mining, Angel said.
But that still left a lot of land that had been converted to meadows.
Those areas are the focus of Green Forests Work, which was spun off from ARRI in 2010 as a nonprofit to be able to accept grants and contributions for reforestation.
Green Forest Works hires contractors who use bulldozers with one or two curved metal shanks mounted on the back to dig 4 feet into the packed ground and rip it open, loosening the mix of blasted rock and soil and leaving it deeply furrowed.
Research has shown trees grow well on such sites because they can put down roots quickly, Angel said.
But they have to be put in by hand.
That's where volunteers come in, though the organization is moving toward using paid workers. In fact, Green Forests Work hired a crew of 15 to plant trees recently in Pike County, said Christopher D. Barton, a professor of forest hydrology and watershed management at UK who is president of the non-profit reforestation effort.
Friday, however, it was student volunteers from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and from UNC-Chapel Hill who worked in a light rain to plant slender seedlings on a 26-acre site in Breathitt County that was mined about 15 years ago.
They walked the rough hillside in pairs, one digging a hole, the other putting in the tree, then moving a few feet further on to do it over.
Daniel Varghese, a Georgetown University sophomore from Louisville spending his spring break doing service projects in Eastern Kentucky, said he liked the idea of being able to restore forest land.
"It's probably like the best environmental work that can be done in the area," he said.
Richter, a student at UNC-Chapel Hill, said she was surprised at how extensively surface mining altered the landscape.
"I'm out here to just like try to bandage the wound a little bit," she said.
The reforestation approach calls for planting 680 trees per acre on an 8- by 8-foot grid pattern. A mix or more than a dozen species is used — mostly hardwoods such as oak and yellow poplar, but also shortleaf pine, sourwood and redbud, depending the needs at a particular site, Barton said.
The American chestnuts the organization plants have been bred to try to withstand the blight that decimated the species in Central Appalachia 80 years ago.
The plan is to plant a mix that includes species valuable to wildlife and species that will have commercial value when they're big enough, Barton said.
Green Forests Works gets funding from a variety of sources. Money for Friday's planting came through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to the Kentucky Division of Forestry.
Advocates point to a number of reasons to put trees back on mined sites, including creating a renewable resource that soaks up carbon dioxide at a time of rising concern over atmospheric carbon.
Reforestation helps improve water quality near mined areas and holds the potential of economic benefits when hardwoods grow big enough to market, advocates say.
"If you're planting trees, you're developing hope for the future," Angel said.
Green Forests Work has planted a lot of trees — more than 1.2 million on about 2,000 acres.
But scientists estimate there are 750,000 to 1 million acres in Appalachia that could be reforested.
Barton and Jeff Stringer, another UK professor, are advocating for reforestation to be a greater emphasis of Shaping Our Appalachian Region, or SOAR, initiative.
It was started in 2013 by Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers after a sharp downturn in Eastern Kentucky wiped out thousands of jobs. The goal is to find ways to diversify and improve the regional economy.
One analysis showed the potential for an expanded forest industry to provide several thousand more jobs in Eastern Kentucky, according to Barton and Stringer.
Reforestation proponents also saw potential when President Barack Obama proposed in February that up $1 billion in abandoned-mine land funds be freed up for projects in areas of Central Appalachia hit hard by the downturn in coal jobs.
Advocates said reforestation would seem to be a natural choice because it would create jobs now and later while restoring the environment.
"I can't think of a better way to utilize it," Barton said.