Sierra Club Spearheads Largest-Ever Reforestation of Abandoned Mine Lands in Kentucky
Over two March weekends in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, hundreds of volunteers including a large Sierra Club contingent launched the largest reforestation project on abandoned mine lands in the state's history.
Nearly 350,000 trees—all native hardwood species—will be planted over the next three years on 250 acres that had been strip-mined in the Fishtrap Lake watershed in Pike County. The project is being funded by a settlement from a Sierra Club lawsuit against an illegal mountaintop removal operation.
Lane Boldman, a Kentuckian who serves on the Sierra Club's board of directors, joined Kentucky Sierra Club organizer Alex DeSha and about 200 volunteers from around the state in planting more than 7,000 seedlings on March 17, and more than 300 people—including 100 Boy Scouts—turned out the following weekend.
"This is really a bright spot of activity for a part of Kentucky that has been ravaged by mining," Boldman says. "The area where we were planting had been totally scalped."
The March 17 tree-planting was organized by Mary Miller, below at right, a volunteer with the Club's Bluegrass Group who works closely with the faith community.
"Mary coordinated the participation of at least 50 Sierra Clubbers and several faith groups," Boldman says. "Quite a few people came up from Tennessee, and we planted seven or eight varieties of bare-root seedlings using Dibble bars."
Larry Ridenour, also of the Bluegrass Group, led the second tree-planting, on March 24. "Larry is a Boy Scout troop leader and he brought several troops out for the occasion," Boldman says. "Mary and Larry did so much to make this whole thing happen. They're real go-getter-type activists who gave a lot of their time and sweat to this."
The roots of the reforestation project can be traced back to 2008, when newly-hired Kentucky Sierra Club organizer John Cleveland, at right, discovered an illegal valley fill while doing water-quality testing near mountaintop removal mine sites in eastern Kentucky.
Valley fillls are comprised of what mine companies refer to as "overburden"—essentially the blasted-off mountaintops—which is then dumped in adjacent valleys.
Sadly, Cleveland died shortly thereafter in a tragic accident. But longtime Cumberland Chapter volunteer leader Rick Clewett and Sierra Club Water Sentinels deputy director Tim Guilfoile, below, had also been scouring Kentucky's eastern tier, looking for areas where the Club could do stream restoration.
"The illegal valley fill that John found wasn't on the map," Guilfoile says. "It turns out the coal company, Clintwood-Elkhorn, didn't have a valley fill permit. This is one of the huge advantages of having people out in the field, because you can't trust the mining companies or the state to document what's really going on."
Below, a valley fill in neighboring Virginia.
Working closely with local ally Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Sierra Club took Clintwood-Elkhorn to court and won a large settlement to do stream restoration in the area. "Rick and I spent three months looking for a stream that met the criteria for stream restoration," says Guilfoile, "but they were all too polluted by runoff from mountaintop removal operations. That's when we shifted to a reforestation project, and the coal company said OK."
The Club is now partnering with the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI), the American Chestnut Foundation, and the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources on the 250-acre reforestation.
"This is the Sierra Club helping to make things right," says Clewett. "Reestablishing the hardwood forests that once dominated these lands will provide a renewable, sustainable multi-use resource that will create economic opportunities in Appalachia."
ARRI estimates that between 750,000 and one million acres of strip-mined land is available for reforestation in the eastern coalfields.
"This is land that has been devastated and deforested, and the Sierra Club is committed to reforesting it," Guilfoile says. "This project has already created green jobs and is acting as the seed for raising additional funds toward our ultimate goal of employing more than 2,000 local residents to plant more than 125 million trees on mined lands by 2014."
The American Chestnut Foundation is donating thousands of disease-resistant chestnuts to the reforestation initiative. "American Chestnuts adapt well to the reclaimed mine land and they were once an important part of the local forests," says Michael French, a forester with the foundation. "We're excited to be a part of reestablishing the American chestnut as a part of Kentucky's forests."
Species diversity will be established by planting northern red oak, black oak, white oak, chestnut oak, yellow poplar, sugar maple, red maple, redbud, dogwood, black cherry, black walnut, black locust, big tooth aspen, and hawthorn, in addition to the American chestnut.
The rejuvenated forest will stand as a tribute to John Cleveland, who was working to stop mountaintop removal mining in his beloved home state at the time of his death.