Advocates hope Obama's plan to fight climate change will boost reforestation effort

Advocates of reforesting surface-mined land in Appalachia hope the Obama Administration's new push to cut carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could boost their efforts.

Trees suck up and store carbon dioxide, after all, and Appalachia has vast areas where trees could be planted.

"These mined lands are a great potential for sequestering carbon," said Christopher D. Barton, a forest hydrologist at the University of Kentucky who is active in the reforestation effort.

Barton heads a program called Green Forests Work, which focuses on reforesting surface-mined land in Appalachia. People involved in the program will explore whether President Barack Obama's emphasis on limiting carbon pollution could mean increased money to plant trees, Barton said.

"We've been working every angle that we can to get funding," he said. "I'm hoping this will open some doors — some additional doors."

In a June 25 news release about Obama's plan, the White House said the nation's forests play a critical role in addressing carbon pollution, removing almost 12 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions annually.

The release said the capacity for forests to absorb carbon dioxide — which scientists blame for trapping heat in the atmosphere — is falling because of invasive pests, wildfires and other factors, and that the administration "is working to identify new approaches to protect and restore our forests."

Recreating forests on old mine land in Appalachia could be a piece of that plan, advocates said.

Scientists estimate coal companies have surface-mined more than 1.5 million acres in Appalachia since the late 1970s. Much of that land was covered by forests before mining. Coal companies had the trees cleared before mining, then reclaimed hundreds of thousands of acres by planting grass on the open areas.

In recent years, scientists and regulators have seen gains in their push to promote tree-planting as the preferred method of reclamation after surface mining, rather than creating grasslands. But researchers estimate there could be up to 1 million acres of reclaimed grassland in Appalachia that could be reforested, said Patrick N. Angel, a forester with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Much of the land is unused.

A group called the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) made a pitch in 2009 for more than $400 million in federal funds to plant trees on 175,000 acres of mined area that had been reclaimed as grasslands. Membership in the reforestation initiative includes scientists, mining regulators, environmental groups and the coal industry.

The 2009 proposal could have created hundreds of jobs, ARRI estimated, but it did not win federal funding. However, ARRI and Green Forests Work, a non-profit sister organization, have continued to advocate for reforesting mined lands.

Scientists involved in the effort say reforestation has a number of benefits, including that it better replicates the natural pre-mining habitat, cuts the potential for flooding, improves water quality and lays the basis for an expanded wood-products industry as the hardwoods mature.

ARRI focuses on research and promoting reforestation during current mining. Green Forests Work focuses on planting trees on so-called "legacy" mines reclaimed as grassland, dating back 30 years in places.

The non-profit solicits grants, donations and federal funding to buy seedlings, pay for heavy equipment to rip up the compacted ground on old strip mines and plant the trees.

The group has planted more than a million trees on 1,600 acres since 2009, Angel said.

"This is in complete sync with what Obama's proposal is all about," he said.

The Appalachian Regional Commission has already approved a $300,000 grant for Green Forests Work. That has been a great help, but more money would allow the group to do more work, said Rebecca Dyer, its operations director.

"The game could totally change with major funding," Dyer said.