Whitesburg KY
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Support reforestation

Only God can make a tree.

But 2,000 workers, earning $18.75 an hour, could make a forest from the barren wastelands left by the coal industry in Central Appalachia.

This vision of reforesting a region and replenishing watersheds, while reviving local economies and creating sources of renewable energy, is not pie in the sky.

It’s a near “shovel ready” plan developed by scientists at the University of Kentucky and Virginia Tech and by government reclamation experts who have mud on their boots from 30 years of inspecting strip mines.

All that stands between their vision and reality: $422 million.

This is a worthy mission that deserves support from Congress, the Obama administration, state governments and the coal industry.

The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative is also a perfect fit for President Barack Obama’s vision of retooling the economy by developing renewable energy to achieve energy independence and reverse global warming.

In the process, green jobs would be created in a region that desperately needs any kind of jobs.

ARRI (say aerie) is not just proposing to reforest 125,000 acres of parched grassland over five years by planting 125 million trees.

People would also be put to work preparing and maintaining sites for solar, wind and biomass farms; measuring carbon dioxide sequestered by the new forest; working with landowners, and developing trails and tourism.

One obvious vehicle for supporting ARRI is the American Clean Energy and Security Act which has come to be identified with one of its components, a cap-and-trade system that requires industries to reduce the output of heat-trapping gases from burning coal and oil.

The energy bill cleared the House along a party-line vote and is awaiting consideration in the Senate.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell steered federal dollars into UK research that developed techniques for turning the monocultures and parking-lot-hard soil left by mountaintop mining back into one of the richest hardwood forests on Earth. Reforestation also purifies water damaged by mining and reduces runoff, erosion and flooding.

We hope McConnell won’t disown the initiative now just because it fits so well into a Democratic president’s agenda. And we hope the president won’t punish Kentucky and West Virginia just because of their red state leanings.

It would be thrilling to hear Obama tell the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December that the U.S. is launching a project in Appalachia that could serve as a global model for restoring disturbed areas with carbon-absorbing forests.

Working with ARRI, the coal industry has reclaimed 87,000 acres as forest, planting 60 million trees since 2004.

Virginia Tech scientists estimate the coal industry has left another 750,000 to 1 million acres of tightly compacted soil, sown in exotic grasses. In other words, prime real estate for reforesting.

State and federal regulators should never have allowed the coal industry to cut costs by reclaiming stripped land the cheapest way possible, not when federal law required restoring it to its original or a better use. Going forward, the industry should be required to reclaim stripped land as forest unless there is a compelling and credible reason for doing otherwise.

— The Lexington Herald-Leader

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