Appalachian Plan: Plant 125 Million Trees

A group promoting reforestation in Appalachia is seeking more than $422 million to plant trees on mountains that were cleared or leveled for surface mining, a program that could have far-reaching impact on the economy and environment of the region.

Leaders of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative are seeking federal stimulus money to plant 125 million trees in Central Appalachia, including Eastern Kentucky.

The goal is to put back trees on hundreds of thousands of acres where they once stood, but which coal companies reclaimed as grassland after surface mining over the last three decades. Coal that had been surface-mined was loaded into a truck at the Pine Branch Coal Sales coal mine near Chavies in October 2007. 

An elk grazed at a reclaimed site at the Big Elk mine, formerly called Starfire, on land in Breathitt, Knott and Perry counties. The return of a species of elk is tied to new habitats created by reclamation.

Retired UK professor Don Graves visited a reforestation project in June 2008 at the former Starfire mine site, now called Big Elk mine. Here the trees were planted in spoil with very little compaction.

University of Kentucky professor Chris Barton walked past a tree planted less than a week earlier at a UK experimental surface mine reforestation site at the Appalachian Fuels Bent Mountain Surface Mine near Pikeville.

Forests surrounded the area where mining was underway on both sides of KY 80, the road running east to west in the photo, just east of Hazard in September 2008. Currently, much of the land that is surface-mined is reclaimed as open grassland rather than forest.

Near the same site as above, Barton walked by trees that are now four years old. UK researchers are trying to determine the best conditions for growing trees on reclaimed strip mine land. 

Read this story on How to mine coal

Post-mining land uses

Wildlife impact

Reclamation practices trace to 1970s change in law . Photo slide show Special report

In the last 30 years, hundreds of thousands of acres in Kentucky have been surface mined, and debate has raged here and nationally about the controversial practice of mountaintop mining in Appalachia. This article is the first in an occasional series of stories about what happens to the land left behind after the mountains have been mined.

The plan could boost the economy in one of the nation's most chronically poor areas, ultimately providing an estimated 2,000 jobs for forestry technicians, tree-planters, bulldozer operators and others, backers estimate.

But supporters say the project also would provide benefits for decades to come.