Near the top of Cheat Mountain in West Virginia, bulldozer operator Bill Moore gazes down a steep slope littered with toppled conifers. Tangled roots and angled boulders protrude from the slate-colored soil, and the earth is crisscrossed with deep gouges.
“Anywhere else I’ve ever worked,” Moore says, “if I did what I did here, I’d be fired.”
Moore is working for Green Forests Work, a small nonprofit, as part of a project to rehabilitate a rare red spruce-dominant forest on 2,000 acres that were mined for coal in the 1970s and 1980s. The mine became part of the Monongahela National Forest in 1989 when the U.S. Forest Service purchased more than 40,000 contiguous acres known as the Mower Tract.
Moore and other bulldozer operators hired by the nonprofit first knock down non-native Norway spruce and undesirable red pine. Then they score the heavily compacted dirt with three-foot-long steel blades; openings formed by this “deep ripping” allow newly planted native saplings, shrubs, and flowering plants to take root and thrive. The downed trees are left in place to curb erosion, build soil, and provide brushy habitat for birds and mammals.
“Ripping so deep might seem extreme, but it’s the only way to give these native trees a chance,” says Chris Barton, co-founder of Green Forests Work and a professor at the University of Kentucky who specializes in forest hydrology and watershed management. “What’s on top of this mine site isn’t soil. It’s the spoil created when rock was blown up to expose the coal seam, and it’s really compacted.”
Such aggressive bulldozing is part of a new and evolving approach to healing forests destroyed by decades of surface coal mining in Appalachia, from Alabama to Pennsylvania. These lands were supposed to have been reclaimed in recent decades under the 1977 federal Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act. But scientists and conservationists say that many of those reclamation efforts were failed or half-hearted efforts that did little more than throw dirt, mining debris, grass, and non-native trees over scarred lands.
Now, Green Forests Work and other groups are attempting ecological do-overs with the aim of restoring native forests on large swaths of previously reclaimed public and private lands throughout Appalachia. The deep-ripping technique developed by Barton, with support from a team of other scientists, involves uprooting the non-native trees and grasses planted by coal companies and starting the entire land restoration process from scratch.
At 2,000 acres, Cheat Mountain is Green Forests Work’s largest undertaking since it began operating as a nonprofit in 2013. Barton has partnered with public and private funders to coordinate the planting of more than 2 million trees on 3,300-plus acres in Appalachia. Other former mining sites that it is tackling include a 130-acre plot within the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pa., the former mine site where one of the four hijacked planes crashed on Sept. 11, 2001; a 110-acre site near Fishtrap Lake in Pike County, Ky.; and a 86-acre area within the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area in eastern Ohio. These and other planned restoration sites are part of an estimated 1 million acres that the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) has designated as legacy coal mine sites.
Replanting legacy mining sites with native trees is part of a broader effort to do mine reclamation right a second time around.
Replanting legacy mining sites with native trees is just part of a broader effort to do mine reclamation right the second time around and restore land that has sat unused and unproductive. Acreage accessible by tractors is being turned into farmland. Orchards are being planted on former mine land in Mingo County, West Virginia. A 2-million-square-foot greenhouse is being built on 70 acres of reclaimed land in Pikeville, Kentucky. Farmers are revitalizing soils on former mining sites to grow crops such as blueberries, hemp, and medical plants.
For decades, OSMRE has required companies and states to follow basic land-reclamation steps as mines were shuttered. But while the guidelines laid out by OSMRE were hailed in many circles as an environmental advance that forced states to improve lax reclamation rules, many conservationists and land managers have long maintained that these guidelines lacked scientific rigor. They required companies only to stabilize the mine site’s soil to prevent erosion and plant something — anything really — on the land.
After mining ended on Cheat Mountain in the mid-1980s, reclaimers packed down the remaining spoil and seeded it with non-native grasses and trees, because that was about all that would grow on soil that resembled concrete. Water ran off the surface instead of seeping into the ground, sullying streams with runoff, harming aquatic life, and impairing tree growth and forest succession.
Ideas such as Barton’s deep-ripping approach were part of an OSMRE effort known as the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative that was designed to move reclamation projects into the 21st century. Nonprofits such as Green Forest Works have joined dozens of state environmental agencies and local communities in this effort. The American Chestnut Foundation, for example, is planting test plots of potentially blight-resistant chestnut trees in former strip mines. The new nonprofit Appalachian Headwaters, funded by the bankruptcies of the coal companies Alpha Natural Resources and Patriot Coal, is helping restore 250 acres of forest in Boone and McDowell counties in West Virginia.
Green Forest Work’s deep ripping technique on a former mine site in Ohio.
Restoration of the former mine site on Cheat Mountain is the centerpiece of a huge ecological challenge — healing the largest swath of rare red spruce-dominant forest remaining in Appalachia. The 40,000-plus acres of the Mower Tract are most of what’s left of the at least 500,000 acres that scientists estimate covered West Virginia before large-scale logging and mining operations devastated this ecosystem.
The denuding of the red spruce forest took a major toll on biodiversity, causing populations of species such as the West Virginia northern flying squirrel and the Cheat Mountain salamander to plummet; both are now listed as federally endangered species. Biologists hope that these and other species — including the northern saw-whet owl, the pine siskin, and the northern waterthrush — will rebound as the forest matures. The remaining healthy red spruce forest still supports at least 145 plant species, many endemic to West Virginia.
Last spring, Barton joined dozens of shovel-wielding schoolchildren, college students, and adult volunteers hopping across a patch of the scarred Cheat Mountain mine site to dig holes for hundreds of shrubs and plants. They treaded nimbly so as not to trample the 75,000 saplings that contractors had planted weeks earlier at about 4,000 feet.
It was the same patch that Moore, who grew up at the foot of Cheat Mountain, had bulldozed the previous fall with another local excavator. Since 2013, Green Forests Work and its partners have ripped and replanted about one-quarter — 500 acres — of the Cheat Mountain mine site. They also have dug at least 500 vernal ponds. In addition to slowing and filtering runoff that flows into drinking water supplies below, the ponds are magnets for frogs, salamanders, ruffed grouse, turkey, and woodcock.
Replanting red spruce is the priority. But to avoid a monoculture, Barton and his team also are planting native hardwoods such as sugar maples, American chestnuts, beeches, basswood, red mulberries, and yellow and black birch.
Conservationists value shallow-rooted red spruce for the tree’s ability to create a deep organic layer in the soil that captures and filters water. As U.S. Forest Service district ranger Jack Tribble says, “Spruce provides a sponge that we’re putting back on the mountain.”
Barton touts Green Forests Work’s efforts as being “as much about economic restoration as it is habitat restoration.” He estimates that his nonprofit, supported by federal grants and private foundation has pumped at least $1 million into a pocket of West Virginia that has remained more dependent on timber than coal for jobs. Green Forests Work purchases planting supplies, buys trees from nurseries, and pays hundreds of professional contractors to plant trees and operate site-preparation equipment.
District ranger Tribble began working with Green Forests Work after he failed to successfully plant red spruce and hardwoods using traditional methods on a separate, mined section of the Mower Tract in 2007. “It was like planting on a Wal-Mart parking lot,” he says.
Tribble heeded Barton’s unconventional advice about deep ripping and used it on an experimental 90 acres on the Mower Tract in 2010 and 2011. “It was a leap of faith that first time,” Tribble says. “Having a giant bulldozer ready to tear up those first grasslands really scared the heck out of me.”
When 90 percent of the red spruces survived, Tribble not only allowed more deep ripping on the Mower Tract, but he also let Barton test his ideas about scraping out ponds and leveling non-native conifers. The work was such a success that Tribble now uses the Mower Tract site as a showcase for visitors eager to tour federal restoration success stories.
The push to redo these coalmine reclamations is not without its critics. Brad Edwards, who for most of the last 37 years was an an employee of OSMRE, which oversaw the original reclamation efforts, says he is stunned that money is being devoted to what he labels “Mine Restoration 2.0.” After all, he says, the reclaimed site on Cheat Mountain won a sustainability award decades ago for following the permitted local, state, and federal rules. “This do-over seems like a luxury,” he says. “It’s like repainting a perfectly good room the color you want. It might be a good thing, but can we really afford it?”
The work won’t propagate an “instant forest” — a mature one is at least 50 years in the future.
Shane Jones, a federal wildlife biologist in West Virginia’s Greenbrier Ranger District, emphasizes that liberating a forest stuck in arrested succession is worth every penny of the roughly $1,360 spent on each acre. “Why would you knock down a tree to plant a tree?” Jones asks before answering his own question. “The biggest bonus is encouraging natural forest succession.” For instance, he says, pioneer species such as native fire cherry trees that started growing on their own on ripped Cheat Mountain mine land two years ago are already 15 feet tall.
Neighbors eager to hunt ruffed grouse, deer, snowshoe hares, and other species actually convinced GFW and the Forest Service to create early successional habitat, so the sole focus wasn’t on red spruce. One tweak was to plant aspen, a native and short-lived species that is a crucial food and cover source for ruffed grouse.
Moore was initially skeptical about Green Forests Work’s plan to tear down a mature forest on Cheat Mountain to restore red spruce. But he says on-the-ground results dispelled his doubts. He knows the work he is doing won’t propagate an “instant forest” — a mature one is at least 50 years in the future.
“I won’t see the completion of it,” Moore says. “But hopefully the next generation will.”