Abandoned Mine Lands

Braving the elements to reforest the bluegrass

By Jennifer Turner

Department for Natural Resources

Pouring rain and cold temperatures on March 28, 2018 couldn’t stop a group of volunteers, state government employees and students from planting trees in an effort to reforest a piece of the Commonwealth.

Green Forests Work (GFW), a nonprofit out of Lexington, along with 54 Department for Natural Resources (DNR) employees, 21 University of Delaware students, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) and the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, braved the weather to plant over 3,000 tree seedlings at the Rockcastle River Wildlife Management Area.

March 29 tree planting

Volunteers plant seedlings in loosened soil.

The mission for the day was to improve disturbed landscapes that were once mined to native habitat restoration. These forests, once established, provide essential ecosystem services, downstream water quality improvements and benefits to local communities and economic development.

“The Kentucky DNR has long promoted reforestation on coal mine sites, planting over 33 million trees in the last twenty years”, said DNR Commissioner John D. Small.  “DNR and the University of Kentucky developed the forestry reclamation approach, a method which encourages low compaction of reclaimed soil material to facilitate successful hardwood tree growth, now used throughout the eastern coal states.”

The Rockcastle River Wildlife Management Area is public land managed by the KDFWR near Ano, Kentucky. The majority of the 2,924 acres has been surface mined prior to the KDFWR’s acquisition of the land in 2016. The land was left as unmanaged pasture, which is unsuitable for other uses without intervention due to the prior use of traditional post-Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act techniques.  These techniques often result in heavily compacted soils, which when seeded with aggressive, non-native grasses and legumes, hinder the development of native forests.

The selected 25-acres for tree planting had been prepared in advance by removing exotic vegetation and plowing the site to loosen the soil. This technique promotes an ideal rooting environment for plants, and allows rainfall to infiltrate the ground instead of running off, which reduces erosion and also improves the water quality in local streams. The trees planted will improve wildlife habitat and reestablish the oak-pine forest type that once grew on the site before mining.

“Reforestation projects not only benefit the environment through the creation of wildlife habitat, they also provide clean air and water and help mitigate climate change,” said Dr. Chris Barton, president of GFW and the director of the University of Kentucky’s Appalachian Center. “Many of the trees we are planting will benefit pollinators and other imperiled species, such as neo-tropical songbirds and bats.”

Using native trees purchased from the Kentucky Division of Forestry, volunteers planted 11.5 of the 25 acres on this site. A mix of white oak, northern red oak, black oak, chestnut oak, silky and roughleaf dogwoods, shortleaf pine, persimmon, black cherry, yellow-poplar, American chestnut, wild plum and blackgum were planted.

To date, Green Forests Work has planted nearly 8,000 trees on other reclaimed strip mines in eastern Kentucky. Two additional volunteer events in April will complete the planting on the remaining 13.5 acres at the Rockcastle River Wildlife Management Area.

For more information about planting trees with Green Forests Work, contact Dr. Chris Barton by e-mail at barton@uky.edu, or visit https://www.facebook.com/Greenforestswork/.

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