August 12, 2009

Conference participants listen to UK professor Chris Barton, center, discuss his research projects.
Conference participants listen to UK professor Chris Barton, center, discuss his research projects.
The typical reclamation process for surface mine lands includes tightly compacting leftover rocks and debris known as spoil and turning once-forested land into grasslands. The loss of forests raises several environmental concerns including loss of wildlife habitat, water quality, flooding and erosion.

Using cutting-edge research, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture scientists showed participants at the Appalachian Region Reforestation Initiative Conference that successful reforestation of reclaimed surface mine lands is possible and beneficial for the environment.

During the three-day conference, more than 200 participants toured UK reforestation research projects at Star Fire Surface Mine in Perry County and Bent Mountain Surface Mine in Pike County.  At both of these sites, UK researchers used loosely dumped rocks and native tree seedlings to conduct several reforestation studies including determining which type of rock is more conducive to tree growth, which drains the best, which stores more water for the trees and which has less runoff.

"We found that by stabilizing the site, dumping 6 to 8 feet of spoil on top of that, and planting the trees in this loosely-graded material, the trees did fantastic," said Chris Barton, associate professor of forest hydrology and water management in the UK College of Agriculture.  "In fact after 10 years, we see that the tree growth is comparable of that which we would see in our natural forests in trees about that age."

Conference participants look at small trees growing in gray sandstone.All spoil used in the studies was taken from each mine site, which means this type of technique is easily replicable on other reclaimed mine lands and economically viable for coal companies. Tree species native to Appalachia, including redbuds, yellow poplars, various oak species and dogwoods, were used to recreate the area's natural environment.

In a separate research project at Bent Mountain, UK scientists worked with The American Chestnut Foundation to see if they could reintroduce the once predominant native tree species on reclaimed lands.  Another featured project at Bent Mountain tested the feasibility of growing materials for woody biomass on reclamation sites.

Researchers repeated the same reforestation techniques they used at Bent Mountain and Star Fire to help restore a stream on top of a valley fill at Guy Cove in UK's Robinson Forest in Perry and Breathitt counties. This project also was a tour stop.

The response from conference participants was very positive at all the sites. 

"There's been a tremendous response to the way the University of Kentucky is revealing the science to the industry, to the environmentalists, to the public and to the landowners," said Patrick Angel, soil scientist and forester in the Office of Surface Mining in the U.S. Department of the Interior and UK graduate. "That response is being reflected not only at this conference, which is very well attended, but also in the practical application of these techniques that UK has developed."

As more environmentalists, coal industry professionals and the public learn about these reforestation techniques, Barton believes this practice will continue to grow.

"As long as we keep reaching out to more people, we think we're going to have many, many more acres reforested in Kentucky and throughout the Appalachian Region," he said. "We have found that just walking people through and showing them that trees can actually grow on these areas demonstrates to them that reforestation is possible."

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