Reforesting Appalachia's Coal Lands

By Hopps, Michael; Torbert, John | American Forests, November 1994 | Go to article overview

Reforesting Appalachia's Coal Lands


Hopps, Michael, Torbert, John, American Forests


A VISITOR TO CENTRAL Appalachia might wonder what its remote, hilly, heavily strip-mined terrain is good for--aside from scenery and the coal beneath it. If you can't land a plane on it a saying goes, it likely isn't good for growing crops or raising cattle, though that hasn't kept people from trying.

But according to foresters at Virginia Tech and some of the region's landowners, these properties would work best as commercial forestland. In fact, they say, proper mineland reclamation provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance to replace poor forests and soils with good ones. And it's cheaper than what's being done today to reclaim most strip-mined lands.

Commercial forestland looks far more practical in central Appalachia than on other surface-mined spots in the U.S.--partly because its steep terrain can't be used for much else. In Wyoming's Powder River Basin, for example, the arid climate won't support dense forest. Reforestation makes sense on Minnesota's Iron Range, for it was logging that settled northern Minnesota; however, the trees mining companies planted there in the 1930s are not yet merchantable.

Large corporations have for many years owned most of the Appalachian coal fields. Long before Appalachia had a coal industry, early settlers depended on its timber. And once the coal reserves are depleted, the land over time will return to forest.

Between 1930 and 1980, a total of 1,454 square miles were strip-mined for bituminous coal in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee. Currently, in those four states' primary coal counties (see map below), some 5,000 to 6,000 acres are surface-mined each year. Since 1977, when Congress passed the landmark Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), coal-mining companies have been required to refill the cuts they make and return the earth's surface to approximately its original contours.

Reclamation here means to aggressively--and literally--lay the groundwork for future cultivation of these lands. SMCRA calls for detailed reclamation plans before mining takes place, backed later by evaluations of how vegetation progresses up until the time of bond release--five years after mining ends. And though SMCRA has succeeded in improving the aesthetic appeal of post-mined sites, it does nothing to ensure that the most appropriate land use will be implemented for the long run.

According to Tim Probert, forester for one of the region's large landowners, "A lot of the regulators want to see reclamation that looks like a golf course." The first fairway at Augusta may be breathtakingly manicured, but nothing but grass grows on it.

In central Appalachia, most strip-mined surfaces have been reclaimed either as unmanaged forest or as "hayland/pasture," a term referring to land suitable for grazing. Much of the rest is designated as unmanaged forestland. Coal operators, who often don't own the land they mine, usually have only a short-term interest in land reclamation; most wish to meet the terms of bond release, satisfy the government regulators, and get out. Landowners and society, however, have a long-term interest in the land. The value of these forests will depend on whether or not reclamation is designed to enhance forest benefits.

Reclaiming for commercial forestry looks good on several counts:

* Appalachia was forested to begin with and likely will return to forest;

* On thousands of acres of land there, landowners could more usefully and profitably harvest trees than graze livestock;

* Reclaiming the land for forest would actually reduce the money mining companies now spend, because their greatest costs come from surface grading (forestland requires less grading than does hayland/pasture);

* Dense tree cover, like dense grass, prevents erosion;

* Commercial forestland should eventually stimulate local economies.

Local interest in reforestation burgeoned around 1980 with the creation of the Powell River Project (PRP), a joint venture between a landowner, Penn Virginia Resources Corporation, and a few Virginia Tech foresters. …

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