The journey from biodiverse forest to “moonscape” and back again at the headwaters of the Cumberland River.
THE DEVASTATED LANDS OF COAL COUNTRY
The headwaters of the Cumberland River begin in east Kentucky and snake down into Tennessee through the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. One of the most biodiverse regions in the world, this area is home to American paddlefish, hellbender salamanders, great blue herons, and a self-sufficient culture rich with music and traditional crafts.
Millions of years ago, it was also home to wetlands, which eventually turned into peat bogs that fossilized into coal.
Appalachia’s relationship with coal mining is storied and complex. Coal has been one of its most important mineral resources throughout the 21st century, providing employment, energy, tax revenue, and economic growth. It brought in the railroad, migrants from surrounding states, schools, churches, and towns.
But the boom has not been without a cost. Coal companies monopolized the areas they mined in, even creating their own governments and currencies. The people of the area were beholden to coal companies and abandoned when the coal seams were depleted.
The environment and ecology of the region have paid a heavy price, too. Until 1977, coal companies were largely unaccountable for the environmental impacts of their mining. Entire mountainsides could be blown up, the coal extracted, and the surrounding landscapes left in shambles.
Heavy metals exposed during mining were left to drain into waterways, creating a phenomenon known as “acid mine drainage”; these caustic pollutants turn the water bright yellow or red and create deadly conditions for all aquatic life. Mine fires were left to smolder for decades, increasing carbon emissions and worsening air quality for locals. Methane leaks were common, streams were clogged with dirt, and thousands of acres of wildlife habitat were destroyed.
In 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA, pronounced “smack-rah”) was passed to regulate coal mines and clean up the old abandoned mines. (The retroactive effectiveness of this law is questionable.) SMCRA now requires coal companies to grade “high walls” (the result when mountain sides are blasted apart) and plant over previously mined areas.
Until recently, this obligation was completed with grasses and invasive plants, and the overall effect was less than desirable. Restoration efforts didn’t address the severe soil compaction that was a result of heavy machinery used during mining and grading efforts. They also didn’t rectify the acidification of the soil, a result of heavy metal exposure during mining. The compacted, acidic soil left a stunted landscape that was only able to support a fraction of the ecological diversity once found there. To this day, plant growth in these areas is limited to invasive plants, grasses, stunted trees, and shrubs.
With only a few inches of topsoil and sparse plant life, rainwater isn’t absorbed into the soil and instead runs off the land. This leads to heavier stream flows and an increased risk of flooding. In fact, many speculate that recent flooding in Eastern Kentucky was worsened by improperly restored mine land sites.
HEALING THE FOREST
The Cumberland River Compact addresses the myriad root causes of water pollution across the Cumberland River Basin. Because the health of the Cumberland River and its tributaries is tied to the tree canopy and healthy habitat on land the Compact is launching a program under the Working Lands department to reforest mine lands that have been inadequately restored. Mine land reforestation is a natural next step in the Compact’s mission to provide clean and abundant water for all– people, animals, and habitats– throughout the 18,000 square miles of the Cumberland River Basin.
Our approach to reforestation will follow the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) method, which includes three main steps.
- Prepare the site: Remove invasive groundcover and aerate the soil. Water will immediately be able to penetrate the ground, reducing stream volume and speed.
- Plant: During winter months, plant a mix of native upland tree species. Tree roots absorb groundwater, and tree canopies slow rain for better absorption and shade streams to cool water.
- Maintain: Once the growing season arrives, check tree health and manage the return of invasive species.
A grant through the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and the Infrastructure Relief Act has made this project possible, as has a close mentorship with Cliff Drouet of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE).
You can hear more from Cliff about reforesting mine lands on our River Talks podcast, “Appalachia’s Coal Mining Legacy: Reforesting for the Future.” He is highly entertaining and informative!
PARTNERSHIP WITH THE NATURE CONSERVANCY
In 2019, The Nature Conservancy initiated management of a piece of land at the corner of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky that is larger than the Shenandoah and Acadia National Parks combined. The 253,000 acre plot, since named the Cumberland Forest Project, protects elk and migratory bird corridors, giant swaths of carbon sink forests, plus miles of streams and aquatic habitat. Many parts of the land were previously mined, some of which were insufficiently restored.
We are excited to partner with The Nature Conservancy at the Cumberland Forest Project for the Compact’s first mine land reforestation project. Our two organizations are in step as we seek to protect and enjoy this luscious corner of the world. The diverse mix of native upland species we’ll plant includes short-leaf pine, white and chestnut oak, red maple, sweetgum, sycamore, and more. At the beginning of 2024, we’ll plant 35,000 trees at this site.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE ECOLOGICAL BENEFITS OF REFORESTING IMPROPERLY RECLAIMED MINE LANDS
The ecological benefits of reforesting mine lands are numerous and cumulative.
Compared to the “moonscapes” of invasive groundcover we’ll be replacing, the canopy of the trees on reforested land will provide a greater surface area for rainwater to land on, which slows down the rate at which water hits the ground. The slower moving water has more time to absorb into the earth. In addition, the roots of trees have a greater ability to absorb rainwater than shallow-rooted, groundcover plants.
With increased root absorption and slowed rainwater, plus aerated soil, water can both infiltrate the ground and evaporate, thus reducing the speed and volume of the water entering streams. Reduced speed and volume mean less sediment entering streams, which also decreases other chemicals, salts, excess nutrients, and metals that attach to soil particles. It may also reduce the risk of flash flooding.
The trees’ benefits go on: Certain trees such as poplar and willow can accumulate metals in their tissues, a phenomenon known as phytoaccumulation. The presence of these trees may reduce heavy metals in the previously mined soils, which in turn reduces heavy metals in the waterways.
The shade from the trees lowers the temperature of the water in streams. Cooler water free of excessive sediment means the water can hold more dissolved oxygen that fish and other aquatic life need to breathe. Aquatic life downstream of the reforested land will greatly benefit from the lowered water temperatures. We anticipate seeing higher numbers of macroinvertebrates return to the surrounding streams.
The forest will provide safe harbor to migratory songbirds such as warblers, flycatchers, orioles, and swallows, as well as rare and threatened raptors like the peregrine falcon, bald eagle, barn owl, and osprey.
Mammals like bats, bobcats, bears, and elk are expected to thrive in the reforested areas as well.
HEALING THEIR OWN LAND
As you can imagine, the site preparation and planting of 35,000 trees is more than the Compact can tackle on its own. We’ll be hiring professional equipment operators and planting crews to ensure the work is done in a timely and correct manner. Most importantly, we’ll be hiring people local to the area to do the work.
It’s important to the Compact that the people of the region play a critical role in the healing of their own land. In a region of the country where profiteers ranging from coal companies to opioid manufacturers have swept in to extract what they can, we recognize the importance of communication and collaboration as we do work that is healing both for land and people.
We hope that our shared work will have manifold benefits, starting with the environmental and moving to economic, not just for the workers hired but for the ecotourism that will come to the region when people hike America’s oldest mountains, hunt elk, fish in clean streams, or simply find peace in the fresh air and birdsong of eastern Kentucky.
FOUR HUNDRED ACRES
Over the next four years, the Compact is committed to reforesting four hundred acres of improperly restored mine land with 140,000 trees. To help you visualize this expanse, 400 acres is about the size of 300 football fields. That’s four hundred acres of forest that will sink carbon, provide wildlife and aquatic habitat, reduce excessive water volume in rivers and creeks, and slow and clean rainwater as it infiltrates the Cumberland River Basin. Four hundred acres returned to the people of the region to be used for agritourism, hunting, birding, fishing, or sustainable timbering.
This project is just the beginning of the impact the Cumberland River Compact’s Mine Lands Program will have in the eastern part of the Cumberland River Basin. Restored habitats will enhance the presence of native species and wildlife, as well as support healthy streams in the region. Not only will the people of the region benefit from the reforestation, but all of us downstream and beyond will reap the benefits, too.
You can keep up with the Compact’s Mine Lands Program by subscribing to the Streamlines newsletter and following us across social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, X (Twitter), and YouTube.
This work is made possible by the support of community members like you. Make a gift today to support mine land reforestation and all the work of the Compact to protect our water.
Caroline Hutchins is the Working Lands Program Manager at the Cumberland River Compact. She manages our River Friendly Farms program, a certification program that educates and recognizes farm practices that promote soil and water health. She also spearheads our Abandoned Minelands work, a program that reforests and revitalizes formerly mined land in the Appalachian region of the Cumberland River Basin. Caroline earned her B.A. from Northeastern University and went on to work and manage organic farms from the West Coast to just outside of Nashville. She enjoys growing her own food, camping and hiking whenever possible, and spending time with her husband, daughter, and rescue pitbull.