If you’ve ever seen an old strip mine in West Virginia or Kentucky, you know what an environmental travesty looks like. But the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative Program is working hard to restore native forests and wildlife habitat on old strip mines throughout the Appalachian region.
The program is a cooperative effort between state agencies in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia. Additionally, an effort with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, private landowners, environmental organizations and academia. Most of the mines that the ARRI program is restoring throughout Appalachia is privately owned. The project size ranges from small ten-acre parcels of land to more than a thousand acres.
Planting trees at old mines
ARRI’s mission is to plant more high-value hardwood trees on reclaimed coal mined lands in Appalachia. It would then increase the survival rates of these trees and expedite the establishment of forest habitat. It uses a technique called Forest Reclamation Approach.
“Each site is prepared to reduce soil compaction and hand planted with native seedlings and the survival rates are amazing,” said Forester Cliff Drouet of the Office of Surface Mining.
The organization wants to change the perception that it’s more expensive to plant trees than it is to do conventional mine reclamation. The conventional way, which has been in vogue since the late 1970s, is to grade topsoil smoothly, then establish quick-growing grasses to form a ground cover. The combination of compacted mine soil and thick grass makes it difficult for trees to take root and grow.
Benefits of forests
Forests are a natural defense against climate change, sequestering more than a half-billion metric tons of carbon dioxide every year in the U.S. Therefore, it’s a lot better to grow trees than grass on these old mine sites. Threatened and endangered species also rely on forest for critical habitat. And forests filter most of our fresh water supply. They also support jobs in many rural communities, from recreation to harvesting trees for wood products.
The ARRI project sites are hand planted by professional tree planters who plant approximately 700 trees per acre. But volunteers play a role as well in tree plantings across western Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, southwestern Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.
“We schedule volunteer planting events in each state to observe Arbor Day and Earth Day,” Drouet said. They invite all ARRI partners, donors, local schools and media to attend and get educated about restoring old mines.
Each restoration will be a little different, depending on the site. For example, in 2018, 400 volunteers from around the country worked on a ARRI reforestation project in Pennsylvania at the Flight 93 Memorial. The memorial, which commemorates one of the four aircraft hijacked in the September 11 attacks, sits on a reclaimed surface mine.
After it was shut in the 1990s, it was first reclaimed with non-native grasses, conifers and hardwoods. By the time the ARRI volunteers showed up for the 2018 event, the land was prepped and ready to be planted with more geographically appropriate seedlings. This includes white pine, eastern hemlock, pitch pine, quaking aspen and silky dogwood.
In 2021, the volunteer component was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But professional tree planters still improved mined areas of Tennessee, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
How to reclaim a mine
A lot goes into turning an old mine back into forest. ARRI representatives first do recon on a site and determine how much prepping they’ll need to do on that tract of land. This may include applying aerial or tractor herbicide to kill invasive vegetation, setting prescribed fires, raking roots, chipping brush and bulldozing the area.
Once the site is deemed ready, tree planters plant bare root seedlings in the springtime, with an eight inch by eight inch spacing. In the summer, a representative returns to the site to count how many seedlings have survived and to assess competing vegetation. More herbicide might be applied to kill invasive plants that come back and compete with the trees. ARRI continues to make periodic site visits.
Carbon credits and the future of ARRI
So far, the ARRI program is not carbon credit certified.
“But it’s being evaluated as a volunteer carbon market program and hopefully will be certified soon, which will provide another valuable investment option for all donors/investors, in addition to existing federal and state tax credits,” said Drouet.
Since the ARRI program started in 2004, countless volunteers have been a part of its tree planting vision.
“ARRI has a long successful history throughout the Appalachian region and now we’re assisting other states,” Drouet said. “It’s a true win-win for the environment.”
Even if you can’t make it to an ARRI volunteer event at a reclaimed mine, there are many volunteer opportunities around the world to make a difference through planting trees. Check out the National Forest Foundation, Tree People or Volunteer Match to find an opportunity that fits you.
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