MINING/CONSERVATION: Forestry initiative plants threatened
chestnuts on stripped land (Thursday, April 24, 2008)
Howell, Land Letter reporter
-- Ninety West Virginia seventh-graders -- nearly three-fourths of whose
parents work in the coal industry -- last Friday helped state and federal
regulators and mining officials in a two-pronged approach to environmental
restoration by planting American chestnut trees, a threatened species, at an
abandoned strip mining site.
Massey Energy's Black
Castle coal mine hosted Madison Middle School
students for an Arbor Day event -- one of 10 being held throughout Appalachia this year -- to plant trees on mountains
scraped open and leveled by strip-mining.
and teachers from Madison Middle School, ARRI officials and Massey Energy
representatives watch a blast set off at Massey’s Black
Castle coal strip mine in Boone County, W.Va.,
before planting American chestnut and red oak trees on a reclaimed portion
of the 7,500-acre mine. Photo by Katie Howell.
"Reforestation is a critical part of
mining," said Don Blankenship, Massey Energy's chairman. "It plays a key role in the balance between mining
and protecting the environment."
The tree-planting approach is new to coal mine
restoration. And even newer is the planting of
American chestnuts at the abandoned strip mining sites.
For the past 30 years, federal regulators
required mine operators to compact the pulverized rock-rich soil and plant
grass to prevent erosion, reduce runoff and lessen the threat of flooding in
the lush valleys below abandoned strip mines. But
foresters and regulators were disappointed that the restoration efforts did
not produce the biologically diverse forests that had been cut down to scrape
out the coal.
"Grass is great at holding the soil
down," said Ben Owens, press officer for the U.S. Interior Department's
Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. "But
the grass was competing with the trees for nutrients."
So four years ago, a group of scientists,
foresters and state and federal regulators formed the Appalachian Regional
Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) to encourage strip-mine operators to take a
completely opposite approach -- break up the soil instead of compacting it
and plant native hardwood trees instead of grass.
In the past four years, ARRI has planted 10
million trees at mine sites throughout Appalachia -- 3 million in West Virginia alone. These native hardwood trees are intended to attract
other plants and animals with the objective that the forest can rebuild
itself by natural means, Owens said.
"Part of the energy and environmental
balance in this country is to -- after extraction -- restore and bring mines
back to the way they were before," said Foster Wade, deputy assistant
secretary for land and minerals management for the Interior Department. "One great step toward achieving that is being able
to plant chestnuts."
American chestnuts were once known as the
"redwoods of the East" but have struggled in this country for
nearly all of the past century. Once blanketing the
entire eastern United States
from Maine to Mississippi and towering 100 feet tall,
the tree was extraordinarily useful. The nut was a
cash crop. The tall, straight trees made excellent
timber for buildings and furniture, and it provided food for livestock and
wildlife. But the species came to the brink of
extinction when a blight nearly wiped out the
population in the early 20th century.
Meghan Jordan, director of communications at
the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF), said 500 or 600 American chestnuts
exist in the wild today.
plant American chestnut seeds and red oak seedlings on a 3-acre reclaimed
portion of the Boone County, W.Va., Black Castle
coal strip mine site. The mine received an award
for good forestry practices on the nearly 2,000 acres of mined land the
company has returned to forestland. Photo by Katie
Jordan's organization works
to protect the surviving trees, plant new ones and develop new
blight-resistant back-crosses or hybrids of the American chestnut bred with
other chestnut species.
ACF joined with ARRI last year to incorporate
the chestnut plantings at mine restoration sites. This
year, ARRI and ACF will plant nearly 4,000 American chestnut seeds and
seedlings at strip mines throughout Appalachia, including 800 in West Virginia and 100 at the Black Castle
Forestry experts expect the trees to be able
to better withstand the blight in the sterile post-mine soil.
"We're trying to establish these
chestnuts on mine soil because it's sterile and chances are higher that some
could survive because they're not surrounded by other trees," said Brad
Edwards with the Morgantown,
W.Va., field office of the
federal Office of Surface Mining and a spokesman for ARRI. "These
are proxies, so we'll see how well they do in mine soil."
The blight is essentially a fungus that
travels through the ground or by wind, water or animals and infects American
chestnuts. It most likely was introduced in this
country by a carrier Asian chestnut that was resistant to it.
In addition to the chestnuts, the participants
also planted 100 red oak seedlings on a 3-acre site within the 7,500-acre
active mine that produces 4 million tons of coal annually. The
company said it has reclaimed -- meaning that it followed permit instructions
to restore the area after mining by compacting and planting grass or aerating
and planting trees -- 2,000 additional acres in completed areas throughout
the mine. ARRI presented Massey with an award for
excellence in reforestation at the Black
Castle mine during the
Arbor Day event.
Although planting trees at reclaimed mine
sites is a relatively new concept, forestry experts are confident it will be
successful -- and in more ways than just helping restore the environment or
supporting the American chestnut.
"ARRI helps the future economy of the
area. Timber is a huge industry, and [tree planting]
helps make sure the lands are productive," said Scott Eggerud, an ARRI
team leader and forester with the West Virginia Department of Environmental
Protection's Division of Mining and Reclamation.
Madison Middle School
seventh graders [l to r] Cory Leger, 13, Zac Elswick, 13, Tyler Dillon, 12, and Tyler Rogers, 12,
place a plastic tube around a chestnut seed they have just planted at
Massey Energy’s Black Castle coal strip mine in Boone County, W.Va. The
tube will protect the seed from scavenging animals as it germinates. Photo by Katie Howell.
Tyler Rogers, 13, manned the shovel during the
Arbor Day event while helping a group of his classmates
plant their second tree of the afternoon -- a red oak seedling.
"This is awesome," Rogers said. "It
feels good to give back to the environment after all it's given us."
Later, he helped classmates Tyler Dillon, 12, Zac Elswick, 13, and Cory
Leger, 13, plant an American chestnut seed. The boys
were careful to mark where they buried it with a stake and to surround the
seed with a protective tree tube.
"So the squirrels can't eat it," Elswick said.
As his friends picked up their tools to move
toward the next planting spot, Dillon looked back and said, "I can't
wait to see what it looks like in a couple of years."
Dillon's sentiment is exactly what ARRI and
the mining operators hope to instill among the students participating in the
Arbor Day events.
"The American chestnut is a part of our
American heritage that has been lost," said Wade with the Interior
Department. "My generation grew up without the
chestnut, but this generation will be able to enjoy it -- and say they helped
bring it back."