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Reimagine Appalachia discusses reforesting mine lands

IT IS possible to return a strip mined landscape to a more natural state, according to information shared by Reimagine Appalachia on Tuesday.

The organization hosted a virtual meeting to discuss the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative. The meeting focused on revitalizing former coal mine sites and restoring the natural landscape.

The webinar was sponsored by Appalachian Voices, Reimagine Appalachia, the National Wildlife Federation and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.

Chris Barton, founder and president at Green Forests Work, a nonprofit tree-planting organization that serves many counties in Appalachia, discussed how he has worked to reforest mine lands in many areas in Appalachia.

The organization completed some local reforestation in Harrison County in 2019.

John Anderson, a private landowner in Harrison County, contacted the organization after deciding to restore his more than 600-acre property.

“I want to make a place for wildlife. I want birds to have a place to nest, and I want deer and turkeys to have acorns to feed on. I want my grandkids to grow up and remember that I did this. I want to help improve the water and air. I can’t think of a reason not to plant trees. I just think it’s all good, period. Everybody wins, nobody loses,” Anderson said, according to Green Forests Work’s website.

The organization worked on 321 acres of the land to establish a new forest habitat by planting several native trees and plants.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Barton discussed several of the organization’s early projects in Kentucky, where Green Forests Work is based.

“Surface mining for coal does a number of things to the landscape,” he said.

Barton said that mining changes the lay of the land and causes the soil to be tightly compacted.

“The way that the reclamation laws were established, there was a lot of emphasis on stability of the land, and the implementation of this often caused these sites to become over compacted, you know, to avoid landslides and erosion,” he explained.

Barton said many plants have trouble taking root in the compacted soil.

“There’s not a good medium for the roots to expand and not a good medium for water to infiltrate, and we also have issues with gas exchange,” he said.

Barton said after conducting studies on similar sites, less than 20% of native, hardwood trees survive 20 years on compacted mining sites. He said that about 75% of the same species of trees survive 20 years on sites where the soil has not been compacted.

He said the organization did a lot of work on one former mine site known as Guy Cove in Breathitt County, Kentucky. Barton said the site formerly had a stream running across it, but the stream was filled in when the property was used for mining.

“We went into this with two goals. Can we reforest this landscape, but also can we bring back the stream that was lost?” he said.

Barton said Green Forests Work loosened the dirt at the site, dug a new stream and connected it to a nearby stream that was unaffected by the mining and planted 60,000 trees.

“This is a great example that you could take something that literally looked like a moonscape when we started and turn it around and turn it back into something that could be useful for the future,” Barton said.

He said he has noticed that fish, salamanders and other native wildlife have made their home in the stream and surrounding trees.

“If we bring the forest back, the species will come, and we’re seeing really good usage of these sites by amphibians where we’re building wetlands on these landscapes,” Barton said.

He said that each site has its own challenges, making them difficult to reforest.

“Bringing back the lost ecosystem is no easy task,” he said.

Barton said approximately 1 million acres of Appalachian forests have been removed by surface mining.

Barton added that there is no minimum size for reforestation projects, but small projects can come at big costs.

“We have learned that one of the things that’s required to do this work is heavy equipment – bulldozers, excavators – and it costs a lot of money to move those things around. So really we try to target projects that are greater than 50 acres because if it’s less than that, you end up spending more money just moving equipment around than you actually do in the restoration,” he said.

Barton said Green Forests Work started its work in 2009 and became a nonprofit in 2013. He said the organization has planted over 6 million trees.

“A lot of our volunteers are actually college students who come to Appalachia during spring break to do community service, and it’s really a great way to teach about what these issues are and how an individual can make an impact and make a change on the landscape,” Barton said.

The organization has also done some reforestation work in Australia.

For more information about Green Forests Work, visit greenforestswork.org or visit its Facebook page.

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