Restoring forests at mines takes root
New initiative calls for trees, not grass, at reclamation sites
Barry Thacker, founder of the Coal Creek
Watershed Foundation of Knoxville, plants the first American
chestnut on a reclaimed mine site in Campbell County. The site was
once mined by Tampa Electric Co., which has its headquarters in
Kentucky. The land was part of a new planting method in which the
soil was not packed down by heavy bulldozers after the mining
operation was completed. Trees have sprouted and it is thought
that this new type of planting will also allow the American
chestnut to come back to its natural range.
A new day could be dawning across Appalachia in the mine land reclamation front if an experiment on the top of Zeb Mountain in Campbell County and other coal mine sites proves successful.
Vic Davis, a forester with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining in Knoxville, and environmentalist and conservation groups are pushing a new OSM reclamation directive.
That ruling, handed down March 2, requires certain reclamation sites to be planted with trees instead of grasses in hopes that this will return destroyed mountaintops and abandoned mine lands to successional hardwood forests.
On Friday, groups led by the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation of Knoxville, OSM, the American Chestnut Foundation and concerned environmentalists will gather on the apex of Zeb Mountain to plant nuts from the American chestnut in what Davis and OSM are calling Operation Springboard.
This is just the first step in the process of trying to turn ruined mountaintops into lush, hardwood forests once again, says Davis. Planting trees, he said, is far better than planting grass, which has been past mine land reclamation practice since 1977, with the creation of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
The groups and volunteers will be planting the American chestnut, which had a range throughout the coal fields prior to 1940 when a fungal chestnut blight virtually made the tree extinct.
The idea, says Davis, is to encourage mine owners not to compact the soil but to leave it as is after mining operations have been completed. He insists that piling up rocks, mostly shale and sandstone, and putting in loose topsoil only works in the favor of tree seed planting.
Compacted soil, he said, is great for grasses but terrible for trees. The idea of just stacking up piles of rocks and tossing in tree seeds is that they will thrive in the less-compacted environment.
The Coal Creek Watershed Foundation has joined the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative and the American Chestnut Foundation in restoring forests on coal mine sites and thousands of acres of abandoned mine lands in the eastern United States.
ARRI was established in 2004 with a coalition of groups, concerned citizens, coal industry representatives and governmental officials to change the method of reclaiming mine lands.
"It is difficult to change 30 years of experience," said Davis, who has been on the forefront of trying to change minds and hearts of coal owners, as well as government officials, who have been of a single mind - planting grasslands.
Davis and Barry Thacker, founder of the CCWF, said that if mine soil is left loose and not compacted, as is now the practice, trees will grow abundantly.
Davis said that by planting grass, reclaimed lands will become grasslands, which is all right for pasture and some wildlife habitat, but if the object is to return stripped mountaintops to their original beauty, tree seeds must be sown in arable soil.
"If you want trees to grow, don't plant grass," he said, adding that over time, grasses leach most of the nutrients from the soil, leaving trees stunted.
Not everyone is convinced that trees will hold the stripped mountains together.
"If it works, it is wonderful," says Ann League, vice president of Save Our Cumberland Mountains, an environmental group that has long opposed strip mining in East Tennessee. "We are a little apprehensive whether or not this will work."
She noted that there have been several landslides in watersheds not far from Rugby, Tenn., on reclaimed mine lands.
"Any improvement is good, but we are a little leery of terracing the land and putting loose soil on top of compacted soil. It sounds dicey," she said. "And if the hardwoods do come back, it will take several years for them to stabilize the soil. In the meantime, we have massive rainfalls in those areas. I have seen it rain 2 inches in 25 minutes in some areas where mine lands have been reclaimed."
League also said SOCM is wary that this proposed reclamation idea could be used to re-mine in some lands.
"We don't want this to be used as an excuse to re-mine other areas and to do even more radical strip mining," she said. "Zeb Mountain still has (mining) violations that are four years old under appeal. Strip mining is the real culprit."
The problem, she said, is that it is virtually impossible to contain every drop of water that falls on strip mine land, which she says in reality is mountaintop removal.