By Elena Shao and Maddie McGarvey
© The New York Times Co.
WEST LAFAYETTE, OHIO » Michael French trudged through a thicket of prickly bramble, unfazed by the branches he had to swat away on occasion to arrive at a quiet spot of hilly land that once was mined for coal. Now, however, it is patched with flowering goldenrods and long yellow-green grasses and dotted with tree saplings.
The sight, he acknowledged, would seem unimpressive to most. Yet it might be French’s most prized accomplishment. To him, the young trees symbolize what could be a critical comeback for some of the country’s vanishing forests and for one tree in particular: the American chestnut.
“I don’t see it how most people see it,” he said. “I look at this, and I see how it’s going to be in 80 to 100 years.”
By then, French envisions that the chestnut, a beloved tree nearly wiped out a century ago by a blight-causing fungus, will be among those that make up an expansive forest of native trees and plants.
Billions of chestnuts once dominated Appalachia, with Americans over many generations relying on their hardy trunks for log cabins, floor panels and telephone poles. Families would store the trees’ small brown nuts in attics to eat during the holiday season.
Now French and his colleagues at Green Forests Work, a nonprofit group, hope to aid the decades-long effort to revive the American chestnut by bringing the trees back onto Appalachia’s former coal mines. Decades of mining, which have contributed to global warming, also left behind dry, acidic and hardened earth that made it difficult to grow much beyond nonnative herbaceous plants and grasses.
As coal use continues to decline and many of the remaining mines shut down for good, foresters say that restoring mining sites is an opportunity to prove that something productive can be made of lands that have been degraded by decades of extractive activity. Forests can capture planet-warming emissions, create safe harbor for endangered wildlife species and make ecosystems more resilient to extreme weather events such as flooding.
The chestnut is a good fit for this effort, researchers say, because the tree’s historical range overlaps “almost perfectly” with the terrain covered by former coal mines that stretched across parts of eastern Kentucky and Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.
Another advantage of restoring mining sites this way is that chestnut trees prefer slightly acidic growth material, and they grow best in sandy and welldrained soil that isn’t too wet — conditions that are mostly consistent with previously mined land, said Carolyn Keiffer, a plant ecologist at Miami University in Ohio.
Since 2009, Green Forests Work has helped plant more than 5 million native trees, including tens of thousands of chestnuts, across 9,400 acres of mined lands. Over that time, the group has collected supporters, including U.S. Forest Service rangers trying to bring back the red spruce onto national forests in West Virginia, and bourbon companies interested in the sustainability of white oak trees that are used in barrels to store and age whiskey.
“We humans brought in the nonnative fungus that killed the tree,” Keiffer said, referring to the parasitic fungus that was introduced accidentally to North America in the late 1800s on imported Japanese chestnuts.
After that, mining the land made it nearly impossible for it to develop naturally back into the forest it once was, she said. “Maybe we can be the ones to bring the trees back.”
That calling has always motivated Thomas Brannon, even as a third-grader in the 1940s planting trees with his siblings on his family’s land in eastern Ohio, the property that French visited in August.
“If I can make that 230 acres look better, then that’s enough for me,” Brannon said.
His grandparents sold mining rights to parts of the property in 1952, and nearly four decades of coal mining followed.
In 1977, the federal government passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, requiring mining companies to return land to the general shape it had before the mining activity.
As a result, mining companies would backfill excavated land, packing rock material tightly against the hillside so it wouldn’t cause landslides, said Scott Eggerud, a forester with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the agency that enforces the mining law. To prevent erosion, mining companies would plant aggressive, mostly nonnative grasses that could tolerate the heavily compacted soil.
Tree planters described the early efforts to reforest those legacy mined lands as “planting trees in a parking lot.”
Mine reforestation efforts have focused on planting a variety of native tree species, but chestnuts have always been a good way into the difficult conversation of encouraging the industry to change its standard practices. “When you start talking to people about the chestnut tree, they get really excited,” French said.