Restoring Ecological Function to Reforested Mined Lands: Connecting Soils with Forest Productivity and Ecosystem Service

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Virginia Tech. Powell River Project


This project contributes to the legacy of reforestation research at the Powell River Project and provides benefit to the larger Appalachian Coal Region. Dr. Brian Strahm has recently (2009) joined the faculty of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech following the retirement of Dr. Jim Burger who has led the reforestation research program at the Powell River Project since 1980. Drs. Strahm and Burger have worked very successfully with Dr. Carl Zipper over the last two years to facilitate this transition in order to maintain the strong tradition of reforestation research in reclaimed mined lands centered at the Powell River Project. This level of cooperation is expected to continue into the future as reforestation research moves from an era focused on seedling establishment into one focusing on forest stand development, productivity, and the ability of reforested landscapes to provide valuable ecosystem services, all of which provide benefits to the landowners, mining companies and local communities. Specifically, this project has augmented the core focus of the Forestry Reclamation Approach (FRA) to “fast forward” vegetative succession and return high value hardwoods to the post-mining landscape by providing information to simultaneously “fastforward” the restoration of the ecological services, function and productivity of the pre-mining forested landscape. Thus, this project utilizes the long-term Controlled Overburden Placement Experiment (COPE) to evaluate the effects of topsoil substitutes and organic amendments on the carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P) cycles that combine to regulate forest productivity, C sequestration and the buffering of nutrient losses to nearby aquatic ecosystems. Additionally, the project capitalizes on the unique opportunity to work closely with Dr. Lee Daniels to better understand the differences that reclamation through reforestation and herbaceous vegetative cover have on these important biogeochemical cycles. The culmination of this work will help guide reclamation and reforestation efforts on mined lands and directly address the growing social and regulatory pressures facing the coal mining industry regarding the return of ecosystems services and productivity to the post-mining landscape. We have made great strides in this effort to-date and will detail our progress, findings, and plans below.