Forest Reclamation of Coal Mined Sites in the Appalachian Region

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Virginia Tech


Efforts to restore forested plant communities on coal-mined sites in the eastern USA have increased over the years. Up until the late 1970s, Appalachian coal mining operations frequently transformed forested lands into grasslands. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) legislated specific requirements for reclaiming lands mined for coal. Early post-SMCRA reclamation strategies focused on the establishment and maintenance of herbaceous plant species and used other techniques that were largely not suitable for forest growth. Major limitations included appropriate soil pH, soil compaction, and use of species that competed with tree seedlings. Strategies for successful forest establishment and growth were developed through experimentation with revegetation practices on mined sites and observations of existing productive forest stands on non-mined sites. Building on this research, the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) was established in 2005 to focus on re-forestation efforts in the eastern US. A collaborative approach to improving forest vegetation (Forestry Reclamation Approach; FRA) was developed by scientists and adopted by the mining industry and its regulators. The FRA prescribed five steps that were deemed most critical to successful forest establishment. These steps include: (1) create a suitable rooting medium for good tree growth that is no less than 1.2 m (4 feet) deep and comprised of topsoil, weathered sandstone and/or the best available material, (2) loosely grade the topsoil or topsoil substitutes, (3) use ground covers that are compatible with growing trees, (4) plant the right mix of tree species, and (5) use proper planting techniques. The FRA has been used successfully and widely throughout the Appalachians to reclaim surface coal mined sites and establish native tree species. Use of the FRA can improve other forest services such as timber production, carbon sequestration, and wildlife habitat.