Stark comparison between strip-mined land and untouched land in background.
Stark comparison between strip-mined land and untouched land in background. Credit: Boyd Norton via wikimedia commons.

As our journey continues in 1993, we venture into reforesting the aftermath of a practice that had been going on for much longer than 22 years — and a venture that is still equally important today, as evidenced by both past and present Global ReLeaf work.

This undertaking involves none other than the reclamation and reforestation of land affected by strip mining. Strip mining, which involves the removal of a long strip of overlying rock and soil, is most commonly used to mine coal in the United States, as it is less labor-intensive and generally reaps more coal than underground mining. Having first gained traction in the mid-sixteenth century, strip mining — which includes open-pit and mountaintop removal mining — is the most predominant form of mining coal in Appalachia and the Midwest.

However, the consequences of such mining practices can be devastating without proper environmental remediation. Strip mining can leave a permanent scar on landscapes, destroying forests and wildlife habitats at the site of the mines. Soil erosion and loss of soil fertility can result. In addition, increased risks of chemical contamination through the seepage of upturned minerals, polluted waterways, flooding and dust and noise pollution are all common risks.

This disturbance occurs on a fairly vast scale throughout the U.S. as well — between 1930 and 2000, coal mining altered approximately 5.9 million acres of natural landscape, much of it formerly forest. After mining, it can often be difficult for the land to support a landscape as complex and biodiverse as a forest, as the remaining soil is often extremely damaged and fragile.

With all that said, if there is one thing American Forests strives to do, it’s to restore and protect our nation’s forests. So, in 1993, we completed our first mining reclamation and reforestation project in Coshocton County, Ohio by planting 50,000 mixed hardwoods in an area that had been strip mined from 1963-1987. While some grasslands had developed in the six years prior to our planting, the land would have taken many years to begin to sprout any forested areas. As such, we jumpstarted this recovery with the help of local Boy Scouts, among others, to return this area to its former glory.

Our work has not stopped there, however. Just last year, in 2014, we undertook a similar endeavor in West Virginia, where we planted 55,000 trees in an area formerly used for mining to the benefit of dozens of wildlife, including the West Virginia northern flying squirrel, the ruffled grouse and the Cheat Mountain salamander. However, we, as humans, are never far behind with these benefits — this area serves as the headwaters for clean drinking water to millions in the Ohio River Valley and Washington, D.C. area, and these 55,000 trees are serving to prevent erosion and control sediment in our drinking water for years to come.