Over one million acres of land that once contained some of the most biodiverse temperate mountain forests in the world has been converted to vast tracts of non-native scrublands due to the process of mountaintop removal and other forms of surface coal mining in Appalachia. Natural ecological restoration is severely impeded because of intentional compaction of the mine spoil during the "reclamation" process as well as the aggressive nature of the exotic species that are seeded to hold the blasted mountains in place. Appalachia has long been one of the most impoverished regions within the United States, and this process has further undermined the region's ability to have a healthy local asset-based economy. However, recent research and field-demonstrated techniques have proven that Appalachia's native hardwood forests can be restored on these severely disturbed mined lands if certain principles are followed. There is now a major effort to bring these forests back to life while providing a host of economic benefits to the people of the region.
How will it improve our quality of life?
The forested mountains of Appalachia have long provided a wide range of benefits to both humans and the natural environment. Besides harboring some of the highest levels of biological diversity found in the northern hemisphere, they also have given us clean air; purified water; sequestered massive amounts of carbon; supplied wood to timber industries for centuries; and spawned a rich assortment of traditional medicinal herbs in their understory. All of these possibilities are eliminated when large scale surface mining completely alters the landscape, unless we go back and use special techniques to jumpstart the ecological revitalization process.
Triple Bottom Line Benefits
A sustainable forestry economy is essential to Appalachia as coal seams are quickly depleted and mining moves on to other regions. Through establishment of multi-use forests on former strip mined areas, a recurring natural asset base will be established that can provide the foundation for several types of industries that can employ generations to come while also remediating damaged ecosystems. Besides timber harvesting for traditional industries (furniture, construction, etc), there is also the opportunity to cultivate fast-growing native trees that fix nitrogen into the soil and can be cut every 5-7 years to be used in a network of small-scale carbon-negative renewable energy plants. These woodchip gasification plants could provide electricity for the region and process heat for small businesses. Finally, a combination of fruit, nut and flowering trees can be grown to create a food forest economy that incorporates restoration of honeybee forage and honey products. This should all be implemented in a way that empowers the local communities rather than oppressing them, as has been the norm for many years in this region.
Issues, Barriers and Opportunities?
Several challenges must be overcome in order to make this vision a reality. Land ownership patterns in the region are the main impediment, as large landholding companies, multiple heirships, individuals and coal companies are all potential owners and must be approached with unique strategies. The cost of front-end site remediation to enable native trees to survive can also be substantial, as aggressive exotics must first be killed, and heavily compacted land must be churned up with very large bulldozers. Finally, few incentives exist for these kinds of projects in the coal mining states that need them the most. A large-scale political and economic revisioning will be necessary to truly support and incentivize this work in order to effectively provide for the future of Appalachia. For more information, please visit www.greenforestswork.org.