Organizers of a forestry reclamation project are trying to show that good trees can grow on old strip mines if the land is prepared properly. They also hope their efforts will lead to more coal companies choosing to plant trees on active jobs.
More than 50 volunteers trekked across rough and rocky ground at Carcassonne on Saturday to plant nearly 4,000 high-value hardwood seedlings. The trees were planted about every eight feet of a five-acre plot.
"This is a demonstration project to show that it is possible to reforest the estimated 741,000 barren acres of Appalachian mountains that have been stripped and won’t grow trees," said Sam Adams, Kentucky coordinator of the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team.
Adams, of Jeremiah, said trees haven’t successfully grown on many strip mine sites because trees were planted in compacted soil and thick stands of grass in an effort to stop erosion.
Patrick N. Angel, a forester/soil scientist with the U.S. Department of the Interior and Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, said the forestry reclamation approach was developed by forestry departments at the University of Kentucky and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) and scientists have been pushing the approach in recent years.
"This new method, which is backed by science, relies on a loose upper surface that allows water to infiltrate and allows tree roots to spread," said Adams. Adams said old mine sites are heavily compacted but in a different way than construction
"OSM (Office of Surface Mining) has required that compaction to prevent landslides," said Adams. "The problem is the ground is so hard that the water just runs off like it would from an asphalt parking lot. That causes a lot of erosion, and all of that soil that runs off ends up in the streams as sedimentation. That impacts the water quality."
In order for trees to be planted at the Carcassonne site, a bulldozer operator with James River Coal Company "cross ripped" five acres of the land by dragging a "rip bar" behind a bulldozer in a vertical direction. Angel said the land was then ripped again in a perpendicular direction, "breaking up the compaction so the tree roots can grow."
Angel said reforesting surface mine land is a better way of reclaiming the land than growing grass for pasturing.
"Trees are better than grass when it comes to reclaiming strip mines here in Appalachia," said Angel. "Virtually all of the land that has been mined in Appalachia was forested prior to mining and by returning it back to forests instead of grasslands you are doing what Mother Nature intended in the first place."
The five-step approach
Angel said the forestry reclamation approach can be broken down into five steps. He said the first step is to find the very best growth medium and make it four feet deep.
The second step is to loosely grade the material. The third step is to use lagoons and grasses that are compatible for the growth of trees. Step four is to plant a mixture — a great diversity — of tree species.
"We never want to just plant one species," said Angel.
Angel said a mixture of early succession species such as redbud, dogwood and birch should be planted along with hardwood trees including yellow poplar, red oak and white oak.
"It creates a lot of biodiversity so that the forest is restored both in form and in function," said Angel.
The fifth step is to properly plant the trees. The roots have to go straight down in the ground with no air pockets. The root collar has to be placed right at ground level.
"This is a way the public can help with reclaiming old sites," said Angel. "We’ve got people out here planting trees, improving the environmental quality in Letcher County.
Through the eyes of volunteers
Some of the out-of-town volunteers couldn’t believe what they saw when they arrived at the site.
"My very first thought when I arrived here was wanting to cry when I saw the land," said Julia Burnett of Lexington. "It seems unnatural to me. It seems like I am not in eastern Kentucky, but like I am on a different planet. It’s just sad. It’s just barren."
Burnett said planting trees on the site "is a start at least."
"I do hope it is inspiring for people to start thinking differently in the way we treat land," said Burnett.
Emma Blue, a Murray State University student from Georgetown, said the forestry reclamation project is a great idea.
"It helps out the people who own the land, people who live around the land and it definitely raised my awareness of the work that needs to be done out here," said Blue.
Gina Pirozzi, of Holly, Penn., a volunteer with the Christian Appalachian Project, said she planted trees "to go back in and replenish what the coal mines took out."
Nancy Vonhaus, of Lexington, said she is trying to show some respect for the land.
"Anytime you can plant trees and Lord knows this area here needs trees," said Vonhaus.
Vonhaus is thinking about the end result years down the road.
"Hopefully people will come by and say ‘What a beautiful forest,’" said Vonhaus. "If we don’t see it someone else will."
Christopher Hoskins, of Butler, said he volunteered to plant trees because "it’s civic duty."
"It cancels out the bad things I do plus it is beautiful when it is done years later," said Hoskins.
Trees to plant
ArborGen, a company in Athens, Georgia, donated 3,400 trees for the project. The American Chestnut Foundation, the Letcher County Conservation District, the University of Kentucky, and Tour Southern and Eastern Kentucky also donated trees.
"Everything that Patrick and the crowd are doing is everything I love," said Geoffrey Lee Hill, southeast seedling sales coordinator with ArborGen. "I love putting trees in the ground and watching them grow."
Hill, who helped plant trees on Saturday, said eventually the land will have plenty of timber.
"These trees can really thrive and survive," said Hill. "It’s a whole new era and I am proud of the coal companies for embracing it."
Leaders of the pack
"The coal industry is very much interested in this new way of reclaiming strip mine sites," said Angel, adding that companies have received much criticism in the past as mined sites have "turned into barren grass wastelands."
Angel said Addington Fuels, International Coal Group (ICG), Pine Branch Coal Company and James River Coal Company "are leading the pack."
"They are the leaders in this new way of doing things," said Angel. "We’ve got the support of some key leaders in the industry."
Angel said that James River Coal spent a lot of effort to "cross rip" the Carcassonne site.
Patton said James River Coal hired a contractor to plant 90,000 trees last week on two current job sites in Perry and Leslie counties.
"I think it is the greatest thing ever," said Brian Patton, president of James River Coal Service of Jeff. "We are taking the initiative to be on the front end and do this."
Patton said the coal company is planting high-growth hardwoods in addition to sourwoods for enhancement of the honeybee population. He said he is working with Eastern Kentucky University on a honeybee initiative.
"We’re trying to do things that enhance communities," said Patton.
Adams said OSM is encouraging coal companies to try the forestry reclamation approach on new permits.
"Wherever possible trees are supposed to be planted instead of grass and forbs," said Adams.
Angel said if landowners want to turn their land into hay and pastureland that is fine as long as herds of cattle are placed on the fields to graze. He said that 95 percent of those lands are not followed through as pastureland and end up barren.
A long-term project
Adams said the first year the trees are going to sleep. The second year they will creep and then the third year they should start growing.
"Since these are hardwoods, it will be 50 or 75 years before they’re mature, but we hope the crowns will close and create a forest environment in the next 10 years," said Adams.
"By year 15 there will be a healthy, productive young forest on that mine sight," said Angel.
Landowners are excited
Blackey resident Willie Bates inherited a portion of the land at Carcassonne from his father, Bill Bates, a former Letcher County magistrate.
Willie Bates and his wife, Gina, would like to one day retire from their jobs at the University of Kentucky Center for Rural Health in Hazard and build a house on the site.
"This hopefully is not the end of the land once it is stripped," said Willie Bates. "Hopefully something good will come from all of this destruction."
Gina Bates said she is grateful to all of the volunteers who gave up a Saturday to plant trees.
"I think it is great that they took their time away to do this worthwhile project," said Gina Bates.
She said the project can serve as a future for her grandchildren.
"It sends a message out to children ‘Hey, let’s do something for the future,’" said Gina Bates.
Bates said the land is beautiful and she can’t wait to have a house on the site so she can wake up in the mornings and see the mountains from her window.
"You come up here and it is like being on top of the world," said Gina Bates.
Bringing back the American chestnut
Some of the trees planted on Saturday included southern red oak, black oak, chestnut oak, green ash, persimmon and redbud. The extra element to this project is that four blight-resistant American chestnut trees were randomly planted among the mix of trees.
Next Saturday 40 more American chestnut trees will be planted on the site and marked in order to be able to track the progress of the trees.
"The American chestnut was once the monarch of the forest," said Adams. "They made up a huge percentage of the trees here, and they were just a wonderful tree. They’re rot resistant, suitable for everything from fence posts to furniture, and they bloomed in June (so) frost was never a problem. They always had nuts, so they always provided food for wildlife."
Angel said the American Chestnut Foundation has partnered with ARRI in an effort to use surface mines across Appalachia as the "springboard" to bring this species back into its natural range.
"The American Chestnut Foundation sees its partnership with the coal industry as critical in trying to restore that species," said Angel. "It’s the largest ecological restoration endeavor in history. There is nothing that has ever been bigger than this."
"It’s a magic bean," said Angel.
Angel said everyone has a story of the American chestnut tree or has heard about the tree from their parents of grandparents.
"It’s a mystical tree," said Angel. "At one time it was the dominant species here. It grew straight and so beautifully."
In 1904, some Japanese and Chinese chestnut trees that contained a chestnut blight fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) were imported to the Bronx Zoological Park in New York City. The blight quickly traveled through the air and affected the entire range of American chestnut trees by the 1940s.
"All of a sudden it disappeared here," said Angel.
Angel said the American Chestnut Foundation is trying to crossbreed a blight resistant version of the American chestnut tree with the Chinese chestnut.
"They’ve been working on it for decades and we are almost there," said Angel. "We expect in four years massive quantities of the American chestnut being available. The trees they are breeding will start producing fruit."
The trees that are being planted in Carcassonne are 15/16 pure American chestnut, with 1/16 being Chinese chestnut.
Angel said people become more excited about the project when they learn that the American chestnut is among the species of trees being planted on the surface mines.
"It plays the role that it gets people very excited about what they are doing more so than if it was a regular species," said Angel. "It will serve as a component of the forest when it matures."
Arbor Day celebration
A ceremony will be held at the Carcassonne site at 11 a.m. on March 28 (Saturday) to showcase the new forestry reclamation project. The event is sponsored by the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team, the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, the Eastern Coal Regional Roundtable, and Headwaters Inc.
Attending the ceremony will be two representatives of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) who will distribute letters from Colombian high school students to students at Letcher County Central High School.
Angel has worked on a reforestation project in Colombia and wants students from that country to correspond with Appalachian students because of their common connection with the cerulean warbler, a bird that migrates between Appalachia and Colombia and needs 400 acres of unbroken forest for its habitat.
"This has been a truly special event," said Adams. "These high school kids who are receiving the letters will be part of a project that will still be growing and coming to fruition when I’m dead and gone. These trees won’t be mature until these high school students are senior citizens. It really is the beginning of a lifelong experiment. It’s exciting."
The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI), which is a joint initiative between the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and state mining agencies, and the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team have joined together this year to plant trees on 10 sites across Appalachia.
As part of a seven billion tree project by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), ARRI will plant 38 million trees in the next three years. Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team is a joint initiative between OSM and Volunteers In Service To America. Its Kentucky coordinator’s office is located in Whitesburg, and an OSM/VISTA is also assigned to Headwaters Inc. in Whitesburg.
If the weather is bad, Saturday’s ceremony will be held at Carcassonne Community Center.