Students plant 2,000 trees for Arbor Day

JODI DEAL / Staff Writer

POWELL RIVERPlanting trees isn’t an unusual way to celebrate Arbor Day.

But helping to plant about 2,000 trees on land that was once a nearly vertical and barren abandoned mine land site isn’t something many students can say they’ve done.

About 175 local students from all six Wise County high schools, the Wise County Career-Technical Center and Clintwood High School spent Friday morning and afternoon climbing around the soft contours of a reclaimed mine site, planting trees by the dozens.

Groups of five or six students each, led by representatives from the Virginia Department of Forestry, dug holes and stamped in sapling after sapling into the soil of a site about a mile away from Powell River Project on Guest River Road.

Brad Williams, of the Virginia Department of Forestry, told the crowd that he has a “compulsive, obsessive need to plant trees.

“What you’re doing today is planting for the future,” Williams said, noting that the seedlings students put in the ground will likely provide homes for wildlife for 70 to 80 years.

Not just pines

Lawrence Tankersley of the Virginia Department of Forestry was quick to point out that the students weren’t just planting pines. The hardy white pine was once the tree of choice for reclamation projects, leaving them covered with scrubby evergreens and grasses.

About 1,000 of the trees were white pines, Tankersley noted. But the other 1,000 included black oak, yellow poplar, Washington Hawthorne, crabapple and green ash and even blight-resistant American Chestnuts.

That’s important, explained state Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy ecologist Chris Stanley, because those are all trees that can be found in the natural forests of Southwest Virginia. If reclamation projects include only pine trees, hardwood trees like oak, maple and poplar can take years to replenish themselves.

If a variety of trees, both hardwood and evergreen, are planted from the outset, the forest gets back to a more natural state much faster, he noted.

“Pines are good, but if you want it back the way it was before, you need to plant a variety of trees, like oaks and maples,” Virginia Tech researcher Carl Zipper told students, noting that trees of any kind help hold down soil and protect watersheds.

Pines were once favored because they grew well in the heavily compacted soil required by reclamation laws in an attempt to stem erosion. But research has shown, Stanley explained, that looser “overburden” dirt actually stimulates tree growth better.

Looser soil and greater tree diversity — those two concepts are the foundation of a group called the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, which helped organize Friday’s event.

ARRI and the other sponsors of the event, including Powell River Project, the Virginia Department of Forestry, DMME and the federal Office of Surface Mining, made sure students came away from the event understanding why they spent their morning the way they did.

Students spent about half of their time at the three-hour event planting, and the other half learning more about forest ecology, from what trees are native to the forests of Southwest Virginia to what trees aren’t there anymore — namely, the American Chestnut, which was nearly wiped out in the early 20th century by blight.

Big problem, low priority

Before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, not much was done to many surface mining sites after the mineral was removed from the ground.

Vertical highwalls and barren, rocky expanses still remain in many coal-producing states from the days before reclamation requirements. And while funding is available from the federal Office of Surface Mining to fix some of the problem, that money usually goes to sites that present an immediate risk to public health and safety, DMME spokesperson Mike Abbott explained Friday.

About eight years ago, the land on which students planted the trees Friday was a 4,800-linear-foot highwall and about five acres of barren, eroding land, Davis said. But it wasn’t a good candidate for federal funding because it didn’t immediately threaten any people or property, he noted.

Red River Coal agreed to reclaim the land in a no-cost agreement with DMME to use “spoil” or dirt and rock removed from a nearby mining site to restore the original contour of the abandoned mine land. That’s mutually beneficial, Davis explained, because Red River didn’t have to find another place to put the dirt and rock it removed to get to the coal at its nearby operation, and no one had to find a way to pay for the reclamation of the abandoned site.

If Red River hadn’t put the spoil on the abandoned site, it may have had to use other methods, like a valley fill or a head-of-hollow fill, controversial methods which can require approval from the Army Corps of Engineers.