Reclaiming a Treasured Resource

A coalition of partners is working with surface coal mines to transform barren expanses into forests of white oak, northern red oak, black cherry, walnut, and more. Using a process called the Forest Reclamation Approach, the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) is reestablishing forests on mine lands. These forests promise to impact future generations positively and perhaps one day benefit the hardwood industry.

“ARRI promotes reforestation practices that lead to forest development for future timber crops, water quality, air quality, and all of the benefits that forests provide to modern society,” explains Michael French, Director of Operations for Green Forests Work and Co-Chair of the ARRI Science Team.

“Mining companies clear valuable timber, and then drill into the mountains, blast off all of the rock, topsoil, subsoil, and everything else in order to get down to the coal seam and extract the coal,” explains French. “To later reclaim the mountain, they then put back the crushed-up rock that came from blasting, prey much starting over with a blank slate.”

ARRI uses a process called the Forestry Reclamation Approach to reintroduce productive forests back on these lands.

“This approach ensures land stability and leaves the last four to six feet of growth medium loose and non-compacted,” explains French. “By doing that, it allows tree roots to expand, water to infiltrate the soil, and gas exchange so that native trees can be planted on these sites.”

“We get seedlings from a variety of sources, and when we put them in, they are about 18” tall. It can take a few years for the trees to really come back and for the forest to recover. Still, mine sites can be very productive forests when properly reclaimed,” says Scott D. Eggerud, a forester at the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

“We also work on abandoned mine lands, which generally were abandoned prior to 1977. We work on legacy sites as well, where there is no responsible party. In these cases, we work with nonprofits to come up with funding. Then we offer assistance to reestablish forests” adds Eggerud.

As for forest composition, Eggerud says the goal is 60 percent later successional species like oak and hickory.

“We also try to plant wildlife shrubs that produce fruit that attracts animals. We’ve found the animals come in to harvest the fruit, and in the process, they pass along seeds from other places, and it speeds up the healing process,” says Eggerud.

To plant the trees, French says ARRI has developed a quick and efficient system.

“We go in with large bulldozers, and we rip the ground up with an eight-foot spacing. We go up and down and back and forth, and the trees are planted at the intersection of these rips. This generally produces about 680 trees per acre, and we do that to mitigate compaction, mitigate competing vegetation, and it allows the trees room to grow in that loose soil,” says French.

With the proper substrate preparation and the seedlings planted, the eventual end result of ARRI’s investment of time and effort is a rejuvenation of a priceless natural habitat, resulting in the reemergence of high-value hardwood trees on reclaimed coal-mined lands in the Appalachian region.

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