DURBIN, WEST VIRGINIA—Near the top of Cheat Mountain, bulldozer operator Bill Moore grimaces at the wreckage littering the steep slope below. It looks as if King Kong threw a temper tantrum in this rugged, rural region just southwest of the state’s eastern panhandle.
Mature conifers are toppled, their tangled roots exposed. Angled boulders jut awkwardly from the slate-colored soil. And severe gouges crisscross the earth like a landscape-size checkerboard.
“It is ugly,” Moore tells Renewal News about the mayhem he created upon request. “Anywhere else I’ve ever worked, if I did what I did here, I’d be fired.”
Scientist Chris Barton, however, treasures Moore’s handiwork as an act of beauty. He’s a professor of forest hydrology and watershed management at the University of Kentucky.
Aggressive bulldozing is the linchpin of Barton’s new and evolving approach to healing the spine and ribs of Appalachian forests broken by surface coal mining between Alabama and Pennsylvania.
Gradually restoring native trees on those public and private lands is the goal of Green Forests Work (GFW), a small non-profit Barton co-founded in 2013.
On Cheat Mountain, Barton hired Moore and other heavy equipment professionals to rehabilitate a rare red spruce-dominant forest on 2,000 high-elevation acres mined for coal in the 1970s and 1980s. The privately owned mine became part of the Monongahela National Forest when the U.S. Forest Service purchased it and more than 40,000 contiguous acres in 1989. The entire expanse is known as the Mower Tract.
“This type of work isn’t for the faint of heart,” Moore explains. “We’re doing things here that haven’t been done before.”
The “prescription” for Cheat Mountain includes knocking down non-native Norway spruces and undesirable red pines. The felled trees are left in place to curb erosion, build soil and provide brushy habitat for birds and mammals. Then, the heavily compacted dirt is scored with steel blades three feet long. That deep “ripping” forms openings that allow native saplings, shrubs and forbs planted by contractors and volunteers to take root and thrive.
“Ripping so deep might seem extreme but it’s the only way to give these native trees a chance,” says Barton, cupping a handful of Cheat Mountain dirt. “What’s on top of this mine site isn’t soil. It’s the spoil created when rock was blown up to expose the coal seam. And it’s really compacted.”
Barton is targeting what the federal government categorizes as legacy coal mine sites. They were classified that way 41 years ago when the newly minted Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) was formed as part of the U.S. Interior Department.
Appalachian-wide, legacy sites cover roughly one million acres, according to a study by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University that federal officials cite as the most accurate.
At 2,000 acres, the Cheat Mountain project is GFW’s largest undertaking thus far. Through 2017, Barton and his small team have partnered with private and public funders and partners to coordinate the planting of more than 2 million trees on 3,300-plus Appalachian acres.
Other legacy sites they are tackling include 130 acres within the Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville, Pa., the old mine site where one of the four hijacked planes crashed on Sept. 11, 2001; a 110-acre site near Fishtrap Lake in Pike County, Ky.; and 86 acres within the Egypt Valley Wildlife Area in eastern Ohio.
“Identifying a potential reforestation site on a map isn’t that difficult, but getting to the point of implementing a project on one of these sites is much more complex than we had originally thought,” Barton says. “Like any new initiative, we had a bit of a learning curve, but are moving along and growing.”
Beefing Up Mine Reclamation Science
Nationwide, OSMRE handles three categories of coal-related sites—active mining operations, abandoned mine lands and legacy mine sites.
Legacy sites, the ones Barton is rehabbing, are those that were already “restored” by mining companies under guidance from the federal agency’s 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA).
While SMCRA was hailed in many circles as an environmental advance that forced states to adopt or beef up lax reclamation rules, many conservationists and land managers had long maintained that despite the act’s good intentions, it lacked scientific rigor. Plus, the measure’s dual emphasis on preventing erosion and improving water quality was at cross-purposes.
That was exemplified on Cheat Mountain. When mining ended there in the mid-1980s, reclaimers packed down the soil and seeded it with non-native grasses and trees because those species were about all that would grow on a surface that resembled concrete. Rainwater bounced off the ground instead of seeping deeply into the mountain. That was a recipe for sullying streams with runoff, harming aquatic life and stunting tree growth and forest succession.
Such outdated science has evolved significantly. It’s now more holistic, encompassing overarching issues such as climate change, watersheds and ecosystem connectivity.
One accelerant was OSMRE’s creation of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) in 2004. The initiative included input from industry, environmental groups, federal and state regulators, citizens and academics such as Barton.
Barton viewed that reshaping under ARRI as an opportunity for an ambitious non-profit to conduct ecological do-overs.
“ARRI’s main priority was stopping the flood of legacy mine sites,” says OSMRE forester Scott Eggerud, adding that it took the initiative several years to jell.
Reforesting legacy mine sites with native trees is part of a broader approach to “recycling” unproductive land in Appalachia, Eggerud says. Sites closer to urban areas are dedicated to housing as well as industrial and commercial ventures, and agricultural crops such as blueberries, hemp and medicinal plants thrive in acreage accessible by tractors.
For instance, fruit orchards are growing in Mingo County, W. Va., and an enormous greenhouse is the centerpiece of 70 acres of reclaimed land in Pikeville, Ky.
Barton and ARRI prize Cheat Mountain because the 40,000-plus acre Mower Tract is the centerpiece of a huge eco-puzzle. Reclaiming its 2,000-acre mine site under updated standards would help to heal the largest swath of rare red spruce-dominant forest remaining in Appalachia. Scientists estimate that such forests covered 500,000 acres of West Virginia before large-scale logging and mining operations devastated the ecosystem.
Mower on the Mountain
The Mower Tract’s namesake is the Mower Land and Lumber Co. The locally owned company harvested red spruce first by rail, then by truck in the 20th century. Mower’s longtime timber operation became less sustainable and more aggressive in the 1970s when a geologist found coal at several sites on the tract.
The mine site GFW is reclaiming was somewhat profitable because Mower had surface rights on it, but the company had to invest in significant infrastructure to mine coal elsewhere on the mountain where it had only mineral rights. Mower resorted to clear-cutting to cover those costs.
By the time the Forest Service took ownership, runoff from the battered forest was compromising streams and rivers that flowed to the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh.
The denuding of the red spruce forest threatened biological diversity. Populations of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel and the Cheat Mountain salamander had plummeted; both are listed as federally endangered species. Biologists are counting on restoration to boost a rebound of squirrels, salamanders and at least three at-risk bird species. The breeding populations of northern saw-whet owls, pine siskins and northern waterthrushes are imperiled in the state. Historically, healthy red spruce forests support at least 145 plant species that are rare in West Virginia.
Bringing Back Red Spruce
On a weekday in early May 2017, Barton drove up Cheat Mountain on a gravel road. At about 4,000 feet elevation, he joined dozens of shovel-wielding schoolchildren, college students and adult volunteers hopping across a patch of the scarred mine site to dig holes for hundreds of native shrubs and forbs. They tread nimbly so as not to trample the 75,000 saplings that dozens of professional contractors had planted in mid-April.
It was the same patch that Moore, who grew up at the foot of Cheat Mountain, had bulldozed the previous fall with another local excavator. Since 2013, GFW and its partners have ripped and replanted about one-quarter—500 acres—of the mine site.
To complement that, they have dug at least 500 vernal ponds on the mine site. Those ponds not only slow and cleanse runoff roaring into drinking water supplies below, they also are magnets for frogs, salamanders, ruffed grouse, turkey and woodcock.
“When we started, the placement was very systematic,” Barton says about the mosaic of pools as small as puddles and as large as swimming pools. “Now it’s at the discretion of the equipment operator.”
Red spruces are the priority for the site’s restoration. But a monoculture isn’t Barton’s goal so the mix also includes native hardwoods such as sugar maples, American chestnuts, American beeches, American basswoods, red mulberries, and yellow and black birches.
Conservationists value shallow-rooted red spruces for their ability to create a deep organic horizon in the soil that captures and filters water. As Forest Service district ranger Jack Tribble says: “Spruce provides a sponge that we’re putting back on the mountain.” In addition, spruce-influenced forests serve as a natural refrigerator by creating a cool, moist microclimate.
Manufacturers long favored the wood for chicken-house frames, musical instruments and rustic rail fences. Tight rings made it rot resistant without being pressure-treated. Insects left it alone.
Originally, Barton envisioned his non-profit as part of a massive green Civilian Conservation Corps that President Barack Obama talked about in 2009.
While that didn’t pan out, Barton touts the smaller scale of work that GFW does as being “as much about economic restoration as it is habitat restoration.”
He estimates that his Cheat Mountain project has pumped at least $1 million into a pocket of West Virginia that has long been more dependent on timber than coal. For instance, GFW purchases planting supplies, buys trees from nurseries and pay hundreds of professional contractors to plant trees and operate site-preparation equipment. Most of those jobs are seasonal.
A Crucial USFS Connection
Tribble, the Forest Service ranger based in West Virginia, originally connected with Barton and GFW after he dug holes with augers on a separate, mined section of the Mower Tract in 2007 to plant red spruce and hardwoods. Most died.
“This is not something we’re used to, trees not growing,” Tribble recalls in an interview. “It was like planting on a Walmart parking lot.”
Warily, Tribble agreed to heed Barton’s unconventional advice about deep ripping on an experimental 90 acres on the Mower Tract in 2010-11. Back then, GFW was an in-the-lab initiative that Barton sought to field test with support from ARRI.
“It was a leap of faith that first time,” Tribble says. “Having a giant bulldozer ready to tear up those first grasslands really scared the heck out of me.”
When 90 percent of those red spruces survived, Tribble became a disciple of GFW’s tactics. These days, he showcases Cheat Mountain as a federal success story.
“Once they saw what we could do, they went from being timid to leading the effort,” Barton says about the Forest Service.
However, not everybody is as enamored with GFW’s unorthodox approach.
Naysayers Question the Cost
Brad Edwards, an OSMRE employee for most of the last 38 years, is stunned that money is devoted to what he labels Mine Restoration 2.0. After all, he says, the restored site on Cheat Mountain won a sustainability award decades ago for following the permitted local, state and federal rules of the 1970s and 1980s.
“Miners aren’t foresters,” Edwards says in an interview. “At the time, they were not thinking about the long term, they were just trying to keep the soil from eroding.”
Back then, it was acceptable to compact what was left of the soil and plant whatever would grow to hold it in place. Native species such as red spruces weren’t even available in nurseries.
“What I see here is kind of shocking,” says Edwards, who traveled to the May planting from his Morgantown, W. Va. office. “And it’s insulting to me and my inspectors and what we did at the time.”
He says he understands why mine site reclamation methods are stricter now. For instance, he lauds the five-step Forestry Reclamation Approach that his agency and ARRI adopted in 2005.
“Still, this do-over seems like a luxury,” he says. “It’s like repainting a perfectly good room the color you want. It might be a good thing, but can we really afford it?”
Best Left to Mother Nature?
Edwards is not the only doubter about spending money to “redo” Cheat Mountain.
Retiree Frank Murphy knows the land by heart. The Mower Lumber Co. hired him as a timber marker when he was barely out of high school. From there, he advanced to selling timber, then laying out roads for logging trucks for the community-based venture. He laments Mower’s decision to mine for coal because, he says, it led to indiscriminate clear-cutting.
“Our bread and butter had always been cutting selectively,” Murphy says, while walking on the mountain with his nephew, Tom Cover. Murphy taught the younger man to hunt, fish and camp there and the pair once logged pulpwood to stay in shape.
Both men say the ruts and exposed boulders from the recent reclamation efforts are just another hindrance for hunters already thwarted by the Forest Service’s decision to block off once-accessible roads.
No doubt, they are as passionate about Cheat Mountain’s resources as Barton’s backers.
Cover, a regional forester in Beckley, W. Va., has worked in the industry for 40-plus years. Red spruces would have come back without GFW’s aid, he says.
“What’s going on now looks like the green thing to do,” he says, emphasizing that he is speaking as a citizen, not as a state employee. “But Mother Nature is going to do a much better job on her own.”
Not exactly, says Shane Jones, a federal wildlife biologist in West Virginia’s Greenbrier Ranger District.
Human Intervention Matters on Cheat Mountain
Jones understands the frustration and confusion with the project. At the same time, he emphasizes that liberating a forest stuck in arrested succession is worth every penny of the roughly $1,360 spent on each acre—$860 on preparation and $500 on planting.
“Why would you knock down a tree to plant a tree?””Jones asks before answering his question. “The biggest bonus is encouraging natural forest succession.”
For instance, he says, pioneer species such as native fire cherry trees that started growing on their own on ripped Cheat Mountain mine land two years ago are already 15-feet tall.
Neighbors eager to hunt ruffed grouse, deer, snowshoe hares and other species convinced GFW and the Forest Service to create early successional habitat, so the sole focus wasn’t on red spruce. One tweak was to plant aspen, a native and short-lived species that is a crucial food and cover source for ruffed grouse.
“We realized aspen was the perfect fit,””Jones said. “It didn’t hurt the long-term goal of red spruce restoration.”
While GFW focused on the large mine site, Jones says the bigger picture on the Mower Tract involves restoring the entire forest’s composition and structure. Even-aged, overstocked red spruce stands dominate the landscape because of clear-cutting. Shaping an overstory that is ideally about one-third red spruce requires thinning and opening small gaps in the canopy.
Moore, the excavator who has spent his professional career selling or operating logging and construction equipment, initially was a bit suspicious of GFW’s reasons for tearing down a mature forest on Cheat Mountain. But on-the-ground results squelched his leeriness.
“I’m out under open skies with endless views,” he says. “Even when it’s 10 degrees, with a 40 mile-per-hour wind, I have the best office in the world.”
He knows his contributions won’t propagate an “instant forest.” A mature one is at least 50 years in the future.
“I won’t see the completion of it,” Moore says. “But hopefully the next generation will.”
- A grant from the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources based in Missoula, Mont., covered some of the travel costs for researching this article.
- A version of this article appeared in Yale Environment 360.
Editor’s note: Photos of Chris Barton and Bill Moore on the bulldozer courtesy of Green Forests Work. All other photos by Elizabeth McGowan.