Dirtying the Dibble Bars

Laura Bray, Program Coordinator
Laura Bray, Program Coordinator

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a shiny dibble bar,” joked the Forest Technician as crew leaders unloaded planting bars from the back of a rented pickup truck at Weiser State Forest on the afternoon of April 19th. But those shiny new tools didn’t stay clean for long. The Weiser site was one of three former mining areas the PEC Reforestation program tackled this spring — our most productive tree-planting season to date, with over 75 acres planted.

The reforestation program is a joint initiative uniting PEC with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE). Together, we’re working to restore native forests on legacy mine lands as a part of the Appalachia Regional Reforestation Initiative. Since piloting the program in 2016, PEC and partners have planted more than 86,000 seedlings on 104 acres of formerly mined land.

While the planning of these projects is a year-round endeavor, the planting season comes down to an intense eight or so weeks from late march to mid-May. This time of year, wet weather is guaranteed – “come rain or shine” is the mindset, but there’s always a chance that spring storms can hinder project activities. This spring luck was on our side.

With nearly 65 thousand native tree seedlings planted, 2019 was our most prolific season to date.

This year’s event at Weiser marked a return to the site of our very first planting project in 2016. Since then, it’s become tradition to host a volunteer tree planting event over Earth Day weekend, and we are astonished to see some of the same volunteers return year after year. On Saturday, April 20th, 25 volunteers planted 2,000 seedlings on 2 acres. A few weeks later, professional planters came through to plant 6.8 acres for a total of 8.6 acres of mine land reforestation. 21.4 acres have been restored on the Roaring Creek tract in Weiser State Forest.

The following Monday, PEC and Moshannon State Foresters organized a private planting event for St. Marys and Meadville PA Outdoor Corps crews and two PSU Dubois silviculture lab classes. Over the course of several hours, 25 young adults prepped and planted 1,350 seedlings on two acres of former strip mines in Moshannon State Forest. The Outdoor Corps were fresh off a tree planting assignment in Elk State Forest — but for the PSU Dubois students, all of whom were in their second-year wildlife technology program, this was their first time handling a dibble bar.

On May 3rd, a team of professional planters ascended a steep slope in Moshannon State Forest, buckets and dibble bars in hand, to replant an 30 additional acres. Like well-trained athletes, this crew flew through three planting areas in half a day. To finish off the reforestation work in Moshannon, a public planting was held on May 4th, when about a dozen volunteers planted 2,050 seedlings on three acres of legacy mine lands.

The project in Moshannon State Forest was funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Central Appalachia Habitat Stewardship Program and Foundation for PA Watershed with the goal of restoring young forest habitat on legacy mine land to create wildlife habitat for golden-winged warbler and American woodcock. These species’ populations are in decline due to loss of habitat, partially resulting from increased human development and an absence of diverse forest age-class structure.

Abandoned mine drainage (AMD)
Abandoned mine drainage (AMD) visible in runoff feeding Great Trough Creek

In Huntingdon County, the reforestation partnership expanded to include DEP’s Water Program, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, and the Clean Streams Foundation, who teamed up to replant a 36-acre parcel of private land, working solely with professional planters. This site, repeatedly mined for coal over the last fifty years, funnels an estimated 20-40 gallons of contaminated drainage per minute into an unnamed tributary to Great Trough Creek — a headwater of the West Branch Juniata River. Using forfeited bond funds, DEP installed a passive water treatment system to mitigate the AMD issue, and private funding was secured to complete the reforestation effort.

It will be many years before these sites begin to resemble how they would have looked before mining took place. But just three years into our effort, we are already seeing a remarkable transformation.

The high elevation and acidic soil of the project site created prime conditions for the inclusion of red spruce seedlings in the planting plan to further the goal of the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, a partnership effort to restore historic red spruce-northern hardwood ecosystems across the high elevation landscapes of Central Appalachia. This is the first ARRI project that included an application of biosolids to accelerate revegetation on the site. This reforestation project broke the mold, leading to new strategic partnerships and PEC’s first project completed on private land.

PEC is grateful for the hard work of volunteers from Trout Unlimited, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Emma Munson Foundation, Shamokin Creek Restoration Alliance, Boy Scouts of America Troop 745, Northumberland County Conservation District, the office of state Senator John Gordner, and various local communities. These projects would not be possible without technical assistance from our partners at DCNR-BOF, PA DEP Mining and Water Programs, and OSMRE and funding support from the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, Pennsylvania Forestry Association, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Nearly 500 blight resistant American Chestnuts, referred to as Restoration Chestnuts 1.0, were donated by the American Chestnut Foundation and planted this spring. Additionally, we received 300 Dutch Elm Disease resistant American Elms from Green Forests Works, provided by U.S Forest Service.

Last month the dibble bars were returned to storage, newly decorated with hard-earned dings and dirt, after contributing their part to the 64,673 native tree seedlings planted this season. It will be many years before these sites begin to resemble how they would have looked before mining took place. But just three years into our effort, we are already seeing a remarkable transformation at the sites we replanted first: seedlings that once looked like little more than twigs poking out of the rocky soil have matured into healthy young trees. Across Appalachia, an estimated one million acres of reclaimed legacy mine lands are still waiting to be reforested – but with the help of our partners and volunteers, PEC will continue doing everything we can to ensure the restoration of Pennsylvania’s legacy mining sites to healthy forest lands.