WEST LAFAYETTE, Ohio — Michael French climbs a thorny thorny bush unfazed by the branches he sometimes had to knock down to reach a quiet spot in the hills where coal was once mined. walked slowly. But now, it’s lush with flowering goldenrods and long yellow-green grasses, dotted with saplings.
The spectacle he admits seems unimpressive to most. Still, it may be Mr. French’s most appreciated achievement. For him, the young trees symbolize what could be an important revival for some of the country’s disappearing forests.
“I don’t know how most people look at it,” he said.
By then, Mr. French imagined that the beloved chestnut, nearly wiped out by a plague-causing fungus a century ago, would be one of the vast forests of native trees and plants. I’m here.
Billions of chestnuts once ruled Appalachia. For generations, Americans have relied on sturdy trunks for their log cabins, floor panels, and utility poles. The family kept the small brown berries of the tree in their attic to eat during the holiday season.
Now French and his colleagues at the nonprofit Green Forest Work want to help revive the decades-old American chestnut by returning trees to former coal mines in Appalachia. Decades of mining that contributed to global warming have left behind a dry, acidic, hardened earth, making it difficult for exotic herbaceous plants and grasses to grow far beyond.
As coal continues to decline and many of the remaining mines are closed permanently, forest managers say restoration of mining sites will make the land degraded by decades of mining activity productive. This is an opportunity to prove that it can be done. Wood is increasingly valued for its climatic benefits. Forests can absorb global warming emissions, create safe harbors for endangered wildlife species, and make ecosystems more resilient to extreme weather events such as flooding.
According to researchers, chestnuts are well suited for this endeavor. This is because the tree’s historic extent overlaps “almost completely” with former coal mining areas spanning eastern Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania.
Another advantage of restoring mining sites in this manner is that chestnut trees prefer slightly acidic growing material and are less moist and sandy, conditions that closely match previously mined land. It grows best in well-drained soil, says Carolyn Keiffer. Plant ecologist at the University of Miami, Ohio.
Since 2009, Green Forests Work has helped plant more than 5 million native trees, including tens of thousands of chestnuts, on 9,400 acres of mined land. In the meantime, the group has been interested in the sustainability of US Forest Service rangers trying to bring red spruce back to the national forests of West Virginia and the white oak trees used in barrels for whiskey storage and aging. It has attracted supporters such as a bourbon company with .
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“We humans brought in an alien fungus that killed the tree,” Dr. Kiefer said, referring to a parasitic fungus accidentally introduced into imported Japanese chestnuts in the late 1800s.
Since then, mining the land has made it almost impossible to return naturally to the forest that once was, she said. “We may be the ones to get the trees back.”
As a third grader in the 1940s, Thomas Brannon and his brother planted trees on his family’s land in eastern Ohio. This land is the land that Mr. French visited in his August.
“If we can make that 230-acre property look better, that’s enough,” Brannon said.
His grandparents sold a mining right on the land in 1952 and continued to mine coal for nearly 40 years.
In 1977, the federal government passed the Open-Pit Mining Control and Reclamation Act, requiring mining companies to restore land to its general shape prior to mining activity.
As a result, the mining companies backfilled the excavated land and packed the rocks tightly into the hillsides to prevent landslides, said a forest officer with the Surface Mining Rehabilitation and Enforcement Agency, the agency that enforces mining laws. One Scott Eggerd said. To prevent erosion, mining companies plant aggressive, mostly exotic grasses that can tolerate highly compacted soils.
During the 1980s and early 2000s, an estimated 1 million acres of previously forested areas in Appalachia were reclaimed in this way as “legacy” mining sites.
In theory, compacting land and greening it quickly is a good idea when it comes to preventing erosion and water pollution, says Sarah Fitzsimmons, Chief Conservation Officer of the American Chestnut Foundation. . However, it has made forest regeneration difficult.
Planters have described their early efforts to replant these mining sites as “planting trees in parking lots.”
When Green Forests Work arrived at the Brannon site in 2013, they focused on restoring some of the damage done to the land, digging the soil three to four feet deep and removing the soil. We brought in a bulldozer with a huge tearing shank to loosen and pull up. rock.
By spring, the group had planted over 20,000 seedlings. This includes a mix of 20 native species, including American he chestnut, Virginia pine, and various oaks.
They also planted 625 chestnuts in a one-acre space called the Progeny Test to assess the health of hybridized chestnut trees that were crossbred by scientists from the American Chestnut Foundation, a non-profit organization. rice field. A group formed in the 1980s.
Chinese chestnuts have co-evolved with mushrooms and are immune to the effects of plague. The scientists then infected chestnuts, part American and part Chinese, with the fungus and picked out the survivors. And the process was repeated for generations.
“The end result is a chestnut that resembles American chestnuts but retains some of the disease resistance of Chinese chestnuts,” said Jared Westbrook, the foundation’s scientific director.
The crossbreeding approach to growing disease-resistant chestnut trees turned out to be more complicated than originally expected. While these efforts are still ongoing, researchers at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry have begun genetically engineering trees by taking fungal-fighting genes from wheat and transplanting them into the embryos of American chestnuts. did.
Many of the chestnuts growing in progeny trials now reach up to Mr. French’s head. When he examined them in August, he pointed to several black locust trees that had made their own homes next to chestnuts — an exciting development that shows nature is doing its job. .
Black locust trees are able to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it to a type that is more accessible to plants. And as a fast-growing but short-lived tree, it encourages other seedlings to shade early and grow straight and taller as they compete for light.
“We call it a natural scab,” French said. “It stays there for a while, helps heal wounds, but then falls off.”
Climate change is complicating efforts to revive tree species in other ways. As temperatures rise, the optimal range for chestnut trees and many other tree species will move north into the northern United States and Canada, says Dr. Westbrook. We have begun an experiment to deliberately move it to the north.
Because the chestnuts were wiped out and the remaining trees only grow for a few years before dying, Westbrook said they didn’t have the chance to reproduce and adapt to climate change like other species. “They’re essentially 50 to 100 years behind all trees that didn’t have the disease,” he said.
Mine’s reforestation efforts have focused on planting a variety of native trees, but chestnuts have always been a good way to end the difficult conversation of pushing the industry to change its standard practices. did.
“When you start talking to people about chestnut trees, they get really excited,” French said.
But replanting is more than any species. Christopher Barton, professor of forest hydrology at the University of Kentucky and president of Green Forests Work, says it’s important to take a “holistic ecosystem approach.”
For example, on some sites, arborists not only plant trees, but also create wetlands. A man-made wetland in the Monongahela National Forest in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia looks like a mosaic of small pools, with intertwined branches of fallen trees occasionally sticking out of the water, providing opportunities for amphibians to attach them. It has been left intentionally to act as a safe place. Anna Maria Branduzzi, planting coordinator for his work at Green Forest, said:
The nonprofit has worked with the U.S. Forest Service to restore the red spruce ecosystem on 2,500 acres of land in Monongahela that had been mined for coal.
Historically, the area would have been wet enough to accumulate peat, a spongy material formed of partially decaying organic matter that acts as an important carbon sink, according to Dr. Burton.
After mining exploitation, the area lost moisture along with the trees.
“The biggest factor limiting tree growth is soil moisture,” says Shane Jones, Forest Service Ecosystem Staff Officer. “We’re trying to put the sponge back on the mountain,” he said, grabbing a handful of dirt and squeezing out the water.