PHOTO: Carol L. Spence, UK agricultural communications specialist
Kentucky now has roots in Pennsylvania. On a blustery Saturday in late April, with rain pressing in from the western horizon, representatives of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture joined 150 volunteers in opening the soil and laying in thousands of tree seedlings in the highlands of southwestern Pennsylvania.
Once part of the mixed forest that blanketed the coal-laden foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, the twice-traumatized site is now the Flight 93 National Memorial. Long before United Airlines Flight 93 nose-dived into the terrain as its passengers and crew defended the U.S. Capitol from a terrorist attack, surface mining sheared the top off the mountain. When the coal ran out, the mining company seeded the site with grass, an accepted and approved reclamation practice.
Members of the UK contingent, which included students, faculty and alumni from the UK departments of Forestry, Landscape Architecture and Plant and Soil Sciences, felt they had taken a powerful step through the tree planting not only to heal the land, but also to heal the nation.
“Your work today is part of a bigger effort to create a unique memorial, one that is as much about the land and the natural environment as it is the architecture,” Jeff Reinbold said, speaking to the volunteers at the event’s opening ceremony. Reinbold is the general superintendent for the National Park Service in Western Pennsylvania.
UK alumnus Patrick Angel is a soil scientist who works for the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative in the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. ARRI, its offspring organization Green Forests Work, and UK partnered with the National Park Service to reforest the memorial grounds.
“This is a very special site,” Angel said. “This is a healing of the heart and of the land. Many folks I’ve spoken with said this work is an expression of grief for the 9/11 victims and their families, and at the same time, a positive response to this issue of drastically disturbed lands and forest fragmentation across Appalachia. Planting trees is a good thing to do.”
The wind knifing across the site on this day is significant. Without a natural barrier to stop it, it blows and blows, straight into the bowl that cups the memorial’s walls and walkway.
Chris Barton, associate professor in the UK Department of Forestry and ARRI science team leader, explained that the trees being planted on the highest part of the landscape that day would produce a windbreak when mature, protecting what would some day be 40 groves of trees representing the 40 crew and passengers lost in Flight 93. And their roots and leaf litter will mend the soil itself.
“Over time, in about 10 years, these little seedlings that we’re planting today, which are 1-year-old bare-root stock, will start to form a canopy,” he said. “Once you get that canopy closure, you’ll really see the condition of these lands change very rapidly.”
Accomplishing what will be a multi-year effort to reforest more than 200 acres with 150,000 trees has taken a partnership of individuals, universities, industry and government. The National Park Service owns the site. Over two weekends this April, 600 volunteers began the first phase of the project by planting 20 acres with 14,000 seedlings of various native species: white pine, spruce, hawthorn, black gum, sumac, flowering dogwood and chestnut to name a few.
“When this started off, we thought it would be a small project that we would be doing on our own, but it’s grown to be a multi-collaborative effort. We’ve only been able to do this because of the partnership between the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the American Chestnut Foundation, the National Park Foundation and the list goes on and on,” Barton said.
The UK College of Agriculture’s participation in the project was significant, he said, including students and alumni working on the reclamation effort, growing hundreds of American and hybrid chestnuts to be planted at the memorial, as well as all the research Barton and other UK researchers before him have done over the years to learn how to successfully grow trees on reclaimed surface mines.
There’s also an educational component. Brian Lee, associate professor in the UK Department of Landscape Architecture, brought three, fifth-year students to Pennsylvania with him, with more students planning to come the following weekend. It was their second visit to the memorial. Their first was spent researching the site for their final projects in their capstone course.
“There are two parts to the capstone course for these students,” Lee explained. “One is a studio part where they’re looking at the rest of the memorial site, about 2,200 acres entirely. They’re looking at other opportunities beyond what’s already built. Then, as part of the service learning part, they’re here as co-team leaders to help plant with the volunteers.”
In his project, Cameron Stone, from Columbus, Ind., focused on sustainable energy for the site, using photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, which are prolific on the hills in the area. Brandon Perry, from Franklin, focused his design on the acid mine drainage ponds dotting the landscape and conceived of ways to make them better visually and environmentally. Tyler Dixon, from Lexington, turned his attention to the Tower of Voices, a structure containing 40 wind chimes planned for the memorial’s main entrance. He said he looked at four alternative locations based on site-specific programming and better visibility.
“I wanted to give it a better opportunity as a landmark, which is the original designer’s intent, or to maybe create opportunities for education around the memorial for mine reclamation practices, since this is a reclaimed mine site,” Dixon said.
Everyone involved, no matter the task at hand, also felt a deeper connection to the setting. Hannah Angel, a sophomore forestry major from London who was one of the team leaders for the tree planting, was in the fourth grade on 9/11. She says she didn’t comprehend a lot of what was going on at that age, but understands it a lot better today.
“I like the connection that’s made between the Flight 93 Memorial and the fact that we’re here today doing surface mine reforestation,” she said. “It’s a way to heal the heart and heal the land at the same time. I’m just happy to be here to help reclaim a surface mine and to help grieve in a positive way.”
For Barton, an experience like this one “means the world.”
“I’ve devoted so much of my time and effort to the research to figure out a way to restore the ecosystem on these lands. And now we’re applying the work we did in the lab, in the greenhouses and in the field on a large scale,” he said. “This whole area is about a healing process—the nation healing from that event and trying to heal the land from the issues associated with the mining of coal.”