Picking Up the Pieces

PEC’s motto, “conservation through cooperation,” aptly describes any number of our programs and activities. But it’s especially relevant to the collaborative work of legacy mine land restoration, which we’ve been proud to share with our government and nonprofit partners in the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) since 2016. The last few months have tested the strength and resilience of that partnership – but with more than 76 thousand seedlings now planted across 69 acres of legacy mine lands, we’ve emerged stronger than ever.

Even under normal conditions, every reforestation project is a delicate balance of resources, logistics, and timing, requiring careful coordination among multiple entities long before the dibble bars hit the dirt. Seedlings must be lifted and transported to sites. Nursery and land managers must decide what is possible and safe to complete. Out-of-state planters are at the mercy of motel vacancies. Legacy sites, once ripped, are vulnerable to invasive species if not planted as planned. Weather, biology, funding, equipment, and a host of other potentially confounding factors are always in play.

Only in moments of disruption can we fully appreciate the meaning of partnership…

With these comparatively predictable pitfalls in mind, PEC began planning in the fall of 2019 for what was to have been the largest planting season since the launch of our legacy mine land reforestation program. In partnership with several state and federal agencies and NGOs, PEC set out to reforest 81 acres of legacy mine land with over 55,000 seedlings.

Three project areas were cross-ripped to create a non-compacted growing medium in preparation for planting in April and May 2020. These sites included PEC’s first foray into State Game Lands (SGL) with a 27 acre site on SGL 108; 42 acres in Gallitzin State Forest; and a 12-acre site on private property in Clearfield County.

Throughout the fall and winter, PEC worked with land managers to identify the best seedling species to meet each site’s goals and worked with public and private nurseries for supply. 40 volunteers were recruited to plant two acres on May 9th in Gallitzin State Forest, and a team of professional planters was ready to quickly sweep across the remaining acres. All the pieces were in place.

Then came March. Like everyone else, we watched helplessly as our work ground to a halt and our carefully laid plans fell apart in the face of a global emergency.

Ultimately, the pieces came together and we were able to reforest 69.3 acres of legacy mine lands across the state.

Only in moments of disruption can we fully appreciate the intricate, contingent, and deeply interconnected nature of the work we do: in a crisis, each partner has its own challenges to navigate, and each challenge can have cascading repercussions throughout the partnership. But when partners have a shared vision and a strong commitment to their common goal, they can adapt to adversity and accomplish the extraordinary.

Meeting by phone and videoconference, our partners quickly rallied around a new goal: assess and reallocate available resources to safely reforest the maximum possible acreage. While people across the country worked on jigsaw puzzles to pass the time under lockdown, we worked to piece together available seedlings with the needs of available sites, mustering a new workforce, setting a new timeline, and updating contracts to match.

Ultimately, the pieces came together and we were able to reforest 69.3 acres of legacy mine lands across the state. A professional crew planted on two of PEC’s original sites, including fourteen acres on SGL 108 and twelve acres on private land. Additionally, 35 acres in Sproul State Forest and 8.3 acres on two private sites in Cambria and Clearfield Counties were planted.

In difficult times, it is easy to give up on projects and relationships, prioritize our own needs over our collective goals, hoard rather than pool our available resources, and focus on problems rather than successes. But PEC’s ethic of cooperation, and the strength of our longstanding network of dedicated partners, made it possible to redefine what success looked like for our 2020 planting season. Together, we’ve planted over 76 thousand seedlings, moving all of us closer to our shared reforestation goals.

What’s next? The future we face may be uncertain, but PEC and our partners are using this time to look forward to the 2021 season, identifying additional legacy mine lands to be reforested, finding new partners and diverse streams of funding — and, of course, adding the 55 acres in Gallitzin State Forest and State Game Lands 108 to the spring slate. We will take what we’ve learned from this moment and make an even bigger impact next year.