Nature needs just a little help

Those concerned with the health of our environment can be quick to point to drastic, instant-result “solutions” that do more harm than good. Their sense of urgency often leads them to bypass ideas that are perhaps slower, but provided by the planet (and smart humans who study it).

Here in Appalachia, however, we know our land. It is as resilient as we are. So when the University of Kentucky joined forces with officials at West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest to turn reclaimed strip mine land back into red spruce forest, it was a chance to help the earth heal itself.

During the 1980s, companies closed strip mines and then followed the best guidance given by officials at the time — they did what the science at the time told them was best to repair the damage done. Leftover rock from the mining process was packed down to prevent erosion and grass was planted.

“That’s fine for stability,” Chris Barton, a forest scientist with UK, told another publication. “But for plant life, if you went out and planted trees in these sites, they just didn’t grow. The ground was way too compacted. Water didn’t infiltrate. Roots can’t penetrate. Oxygen can’t circulate in those environments.”

So Barton, along with forest officials and with the financial help of partners such as the Nature Conservancy, American Forests, the Arbor Day Foundation and others, is tearing up all that work. He is taking a bulldozer with long metal teeth and ripping the ground open — then planting red spruce.

Seven years after the first plot was planted “the trees are growing really, really well,” according to Jack Tribble, a ranger for the Monongahela.

Those trees suck up carbon dioxide. It is their job. Forest Service soil scientist Stephanie Connolly says restoring red spruce to its former habitat in West Virginia alone could lock up the carbon equivalent of 56 million barrels of oil. It will also benefit soil, water, the ecosystem … and the local economy. Heavy equipment operators are required to start the process, locals collect the seeds and grow the saplings in their nurseries, and a recreational area is reborn.

According to Barton, $1 million has been poured back into the communities surrounding the Monongahela project so far.

Such a partnership should be a model for others who hope to restore the health of our environment, but also shore up the transitioning economies in our communities, rather than tearing them apart.

It is not an overnight miracle. Nature works on its own time — but it is working and perhaps it will set the stage for more projects like it to spring up all over our region.