By Justin Hynicka, Manager of Forest Conservation, American Forests

2-year-old red spruce sapling
A 2-year-old red spruce sapling from American Forests’ 2014 Lambert Run Project in Monongahela National Forest, W. Va. Credit: Justin Hynicka.

To me, one of the most magical features of forests is their stillness. Even relatively young, even-age forests of the Eastern U.S. are peaceful places that can just as easily silence the world around us as they can magnify the sounds of the wildlife that inhabit them. Despite knowledge of the regional forest history and better judgement, this stillness can almost convince you that this is how these forests have always been and always will be. It doesn’t take much time, however, for a frequent visitor to notice changes throughout the year, or differences from one location to another, that reveal forests are incredibly dynamic places. These hints include showy sequences of blossoming wildflowers — trout lily, jack in the pulpit, mayapple and magnolias — that parade throughout spring, or differences in the size and types of trees that tell us disruptive events and long-term processes are also at play.

The forests of Central Appalachia are uniquely equipped to recover from disturbance. This region is the mixing zone for southern and northern tree species of the Eastern U.S., yielding a high diversity of trees and other plants that have unique life histories and adaptations. High diversity ensures that a declining tree species (due to wildfire, old age, pests and disease, etc.) will be succeeded by a different tree and maintain essential forest processes. High annual rainfall distributed throughout the year limits the frequency and severity of wildfire, while intense wind from hurricanes or extreme weight from ice storms may break trees but still allow seeds, organic matter and nutrients to accumulate in soils. In addition, the rugged landscape shielded rare red spruce forests, which occupy the upper elevations in Central Appalachia and have persisted for millennia, from deforestation until the late 1800s.

Forest succession can be arrested even in these highly diverse and historically stable ecosystems. Widespread deforestation of red spruce in the early 1900s and human-induced wildfire caused several feet of organic rich soil to burn down to bedrock destroying the native seedbank, and there are more than 1 million acres of surface mines in Central Appalachia in need of soil decompaction. The primary objective of traditional mine land restoration is to prevent erosion and protect waterways by compacting soils, seeding with non-native grasses and forbs to quickly establish groundcover and occasionally planting non-native and fast-growing conifers such as red pine and Norway spruce. Unfortunately, planted trees often die because their roots cannot penetrate the compacted soils, and nearby seedlings of native forest plants are unable to establish in the sea of non-native grasses.

Due to compacted soils and competition from non-native plants, more than 1,400 acres of mine land across the Cheat and Shavers Mountains in Monongahela National Forest, W. Va., have been trapped as non-native grasslands for more than 40 years. These mountains are global biodiversity hotspots, and we are thrilled to partner with Green Forests Works and Monongahela National Forest to help restore them. Mine land restoration in Central Appalachia is expensive (~$2,000 per acre) compared to other types of forest restoration because heavy machinery is needed to decompact soils. And, while it will take some time until the red spruce that we plant reach maturity, the presence of amphibians in newly created vernal pools and natural regeneration of blazing cherry provides instant gratification.

Aerial images of Cheat and Shavers Mountains in West Virginia from 1997, 2002 and 2013, show that few trees have grown on stripped-mined areas (light colored areas) over the last 20+ years.