Planting Some Trees on Old Strip Mines

By Beth Little

I just witnessed an operation that has it all:  job creation, land restoration, and youth education.  The jobs are largely local and varied, from bulldozer operator to tree planting grunt.  The restoration is of old strip mined lands on Cheat Mountain, and the youth this day were students from colleges and universities in at least three states (I saw license plates for Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia); high schools from Pocahontas and Randolph Counties; and even a couple of local middle schools.

The list of collaborators includes state and federal agencies, state universities, and private environmental organizations.  I hesitate to attempt a list, because I know I’ll leave some out, but at least:  Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Natural Resources, Environmental Protection Agency, Fish and Wildlife Service, West Virginia University, Office of Surface Mining, University of Kentucky, Canaan Valley Institute, The Nature Conservancy, Cheat Mountain Club, and American Rivers.  Of course it is on the Monongahela National Forest, so the US Forest Service is coordinating; and right at the core is the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy in the person of Dave Saville, the hero who supplies the trees – Red Spruce trees.

As I drove into the Mower Tract, my first view was spectacular – wide vistas of spruce trees and grassy slopes.  During the day I learned that the problem is that the trees are Norway spruce, and grass is not the preferred vegetation for what used to be Red spruce habitat; but it was very pretty.  Then I rounded a curve and saw devastation – worse than the derecho – all the trees knocked down, roots in the air, rocks scattered on humpy ground – like a prelude to Mordor.

During the day it was explained that the mine lands were so compacted that the trees that had been planted during the original ‘restoration’ had shallow root systems and were not growing well; plus, nothing else was being naturally seeded – the usual wildflowers, shrubs and hardwoods – only grass.  Hence the new approach that looked so awful.

First they bulldozed down most (though not all) of the Norway spruce and then ‘ripped’ the land with a huge tooth like attachment on the bulldozer.  The uprooted trees would supply nutrients to the soil as they broke down, and the Department of Highways was also encouraged to spread any chipped vegetation waste they wanted to get rid of.  The tumbled up land surface would collect more water instead of allowing it to run off into sediment ponds that were also part of the original restoration.  Instead, small wetlands were created.

It looked like a huge ugly mess, but when we moved on to areas that had been treated earlier, the results were thrilling.  The areas subjected to the treatment 5 years ago were covered with waist high Red spruce, aspen, and wildflowers.  The land was still somewhat clumpy, but weathering down, and the old bulldozed trees were much less noticeable.  The three year old treated areas had knee-high Red spruce.  The areas that had looked so devastated when I drove in turned out to be land that was treated in the last year or two, and it was covered with little foot high Red spruce that I had not noticed amid the raw results of having been recently ‘ripped.’

Apparently it took some courage to begin:  What?  Put a bulldozer on the slopes, knock down all the trees, and tear up the ground?  But the results are undeniable, and they are attracting more investment money to treat more and more areas – thousands of acres with tens of thousands of trees.

Quite a bit of science is going into the process, especially hydrology.  They are learning as they go, and modifying things accordingly.  And what an uplifting thing to see.  I look forward to observing it in 10 years, and imagining what it will look like in 40 years.

The press was there, and had been at the earlier plantings, to get the word out and PBS has done a special about it.  The best thing for me was the education of the students who were there to help with the planting.  The Forest Service also had them scattering milkweed seeds to attract Monarch butterflies.  That brought back memories of blowing on the milkweed pods to watch the parachuted seeds float away (and devil the nearby farmers).

I almost missed out.  It had rained all night the night before and was still raining when I got up, so I came close to bagging it.  But I checked the weather, and it looked like it might clear up in the afternoon, so I headed out.  When I got to the planting area in the Mower Tract, there was a glorious blue sky with little puffy white clouds and a refreshing breeze.  They (the Forest Service) served lunch, and they even had brownies.

What a fabulous day!