Tom Eblen

Kentucky writers, artists are planting trees. This is why.

Here's why well-known Kentucky writers come to a former strip mine on a snowy Saturday

Tree-planting event is part of a larger effort to use new research to reforest former coal mine land throughout Appalachia.
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Tree-planting event is part of a larger effort to use new research to reforest former coal mine land throughout Appalachia.

Like many environmentalists, writer Erik Reece was depressed by the election of President Donald Trump, whose administration is fulfilling promises to roll back environmental regulations and give polluters free reign.

“I was trying to figure out how to move forward,” said Reece, a University of Kentucky English professor and the author of award-winning books such as “Lost Mountain” and “The Embattled Wilderness.”

“I knew we were going to have to march and call our legislators, but that’s pushing against something,” Reece said. “I was trying to think of something positive.”

What he did was gather some friends and create the nonprofit group Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation, which spent several hours Saturday planting native hardwood saplings on a former strip mine site in Pulaski County.

Among those working with Reece in the cold, snowy weather were Maurice Manning, an award-winning poet who teaches at Transylvania University; Daniel Martin Moore, a well-known Louisville singer and songwriter; and poet Eric Scott Sutherland, who created the popular Holler Poets events at Al’s Bar.

“I love trees,” said Sutherland, whose day job is with Town Branch Tree Experts in Lexington. “It’s a way to bring back some life, to heal the earth.”

Together with Boy Scouts from Troop 14 in Versailles, the group planted 3,000 trees over a vast hillside that had been strip-mined in the 1980s. After mining, the land was planted with non-native scrub plants that would grow on the compacted soil, heavy with clay and crushed shale.

This was the group’s third planting event. It planted 2,500 trees on Earth Day last April 22 at a former strip mine in Perry County. On Oct. 21, the writers and artists planted 800 acorns on another former mine site to commemorate the 800th anniversary of King Henry III of England’s Charter of the Forest, one of the first legal documents in the English-speaking world guaranteeing public access to land.

Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation’s work is facilitated by another nonprofit, Green Forests Work. It grew out of research by Chris Barton and others at the University of Kentucky Department of Forestry on how to successfully reforest strip-mined land.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 required former mine sites to be returned to their approximate contour and compacted to prevent landslides. But few native plants can grow in barren, compacted soil, so most sites were planted with exotic species with few environmental benefits.

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Erik Reece, right, a writer who teaches English at the University of Kentucky, uses a dibble to dig a hole so poet Maurice Manning, who teaches at Transylvania University, can plant a sapling. Reece founded the nonprofit group Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation. It was planting Saturday on a former strip mine site in Pulaski County. Tom Eblen teblen@herald-leader.com

UK’s research found that using specially equipped bulldozers to break up the top layer of soil and rock allowed well-planted native trees a good chance of survival. The first test plots more than a decade ago are becoming productive forests, with a variety of native plant species regenerating below the closing tree canopy.

So far, Green Forests Work has planted 2.4 million trees in eight states, from Pennsylvania to Alabama. This year, it will plant nearly 400,000 trees on 600 acres.

“We work with private landowners and public land managers to restore a healthy, productive, native forest ecosystem,” said Michael French, the group’s operations director. “We’re not only doing it for the environmental benefits of clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, but we’re also doing it for the economic impacts.”

While many of its trees are planted by volunteers, Green Forests Work also hires professional contractors to kill invasive species, rip up the sites with bulldozers and plant trees, creating jobs in Appalachia. The resulting forests will create future jobs in forest management, logging and wood products industries.

Among the species being planted are hybrid chestnuts developed to resist the blight that killed virtually all of this once-dominant species from Appalachia’s forests in the early 1900s.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing to do to come out with friends and help make the forest come back,” said Moore, the singer and songwriter. “I think the responsibility is on all of us to try to make this place what it rightfully is.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

Want to plant trees?

You don’t have to be a writer, artist or opponent of Trump’s environmental policies to plant trees. Reforest the Bluegrass’ annual tree-planting event is Saturday, April 14, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Veterans Park, 650 Southpoint Drive. The free family-friendly event is open to the public, no tree-planting experience required. Since 2009, the annual event that has planted 20,000 trees around Lexington. More info: Lexingtonky.gov/reforest.

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