Restoration, Not Greenwash
By Charlie Feldhake
The shear magnitude of acreage being subjected to mountain top removal prohibits any reasonable expectation that coal companies can develop this land for use by industrial parks or shopping malls. No land should be disturbed, therefore, unless it can be returned to a biologically productive condition. We owe this to future generations as an investment in jobs for them.
The current practice of creating nearly flat areas and seeding them to primarily tall fescue grass makes sense for erosion control. But from a productivity perspective these areas are biological deserts compared to surrounding forests. You sometimes hear people comment on seeing wildlife on these areas. This is mainly because these sites are exposed and wildlife is easily visible as it wanders across from one forested area to another. Tall fescue can be managed as useful forage for livestock. This requires maintaining good levels of soil fertility, including clover species as companion plants, and continual removal of the vegetative canopy so nutritious young leaves are constantly regrowing. This is not now being done on mined lands.
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) researched management of mountain top removal sites as pasture back in the early 1980's. After being monitored sitting idle for a few years, an area was divided into paddocks, fertilized, and grazed rotationally by beef cattle. After two years earthworm populations became evident and the hydrologic response of the area, determined using flumes to measure runoff on small catchments, improved dramatically. Soil forming processes accelerated as the plant-animal-earthworm- microbe system began cycling nutrients and there was increased retention of rainfall on-site.
This points out that aggressively managing these lands can have economic and environmental benefits. I am not, however, a proponent of having the coal industry subsidize beef production thereby further depressing prices received by our West Virginia farmers. There are perhaps some better options for managing these lands intensively.
Dr. Jim Burger from the Department of Forestry at Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University has done a lot of research resulting in information on how to replace overburden materials so that land can be subsequently managed as highly productive commercial forests. Besides growing a future timber crop one could design species diverse systems to provide nut and fruit crops that would not significantly compete with the West Virginia’s existing agricultural community.
An additional obstacle for communities to deal with is that even if these lands are made productive most will still be owned by corporations. The lack of local control over land resources limits the ability of communities to develop sustainable economies based on harvesting renewable resources and processing them through local value-added enterprises.
A study, done in California, comparing two towns of similar size, one surrounded by corporate farms and the other by small family farms, showed land ownership status had a significant impact on local quality of life.
The small-farm community had better community facilities: more schools, more parks, more newspapers, more civic organizations and more churches. The small-farm community had twice as many business establishments as the corporate-farm town and did 61% more retail business, especially in household goods and building equipment. Physical facilities for community living, such as paved streets, sidewalks, garbage disposal, sewage disposal and other public services, were far greater in the small-farm community. In the corporate-farm community some of these facilities were entirely lacking.
So what will the quality of life be for future generations in southwestern West Virginia? There is little doubt that the trend of fewer people being employed to mine coal will continue. What other resources will be available to drive the economy and who will own them is certainly a critical topic for discussion.
Charlie Feldhake, Ph. D., is a soils’ scientist with the USDA