With partners at the local, state, and federal levels, PEC’s reforestation program works to restore forests on legacy coal mines across the Commonwealth.

May 24, 2019
photo: Andy Kubis

Allegheny Front: Former Mine Lands Get An Ecological Do-Over

Deep in the Moshannon State Forest in Elk County, Pennsylvania, there’s a sloped, barren patch of land surrounded by an otherwise healthy forest. It looks as if a tornado has torn through here — the earth has been churned up, with tangled roots and jumbled rocks.

In the late 1800s, this area was deep-mined. Later, it was strip-mined. When the coal companies left in the mid-1990s, the land was abandoned. Then about twelve years ago, the site was reclaimed. Trees were planted, but didn’t take, as often happens on reclaimed minelands.

“The technology back then was to just re-contour the land,” explains John Hecker, a forester for the state who manages this track of land. “But the bulldozers, as they ran over the land, they compacted the soil. Trees don’t do very well on compacted soil. This site is a good example of that.”

What few trees are here are extremely stunted and thin. But now this — and hundreds of acres of formerly mined land in Pennsylvania — are getting an ecological do-over. ‘Reclamation 2.0,’ you could call it.

That’s why the ground is ripped apart. A jumbo-sized bulldozer with a 3-foot blade came through here earlier in the year and criss crossed the area with deep furrows. As the dozer went through, it blended the materials together to make what looks like very healthy soil: a lot of shale, pre-mined and native soils and sandstone.

“Now the tree roots [can] grow down into that loose soil where it’s moist,” Hecker said. “Those trees will really grow well,”

This aggressive form of bulldozing is a relatively new technique; it’s only been used for the last 10 years or so. It’s called the Forestry Reclamation Approach.

Scott Eggerud is a forester and regulator with the federal Office of Surface Mine Reclamation Enforcement. He says that this new technique goes against what they were taught at forestry school.

“What they taught us in school is you pack it in and put aggressive ground cover to stabilize the site,” he said.

And that’s exactly what happened here on this site. The non-native grasses that were planted 12 years ago did really well on the compacted soil. The grasses grew so think that rainwater couldn’t seep into the ground, instead running off into the streams below. This new plan will change that.

“Instead of water washing off the sites, it now infiltrates,” said Eggerud. “It’s more natural — the way it was supposed to be, the way it was before mining. And believe it or not, this is nutrient rich material. We’re going to grow some really nice trees in this area.”

Volunteers Help Regrow a Forest

A crew of professional tree-planters was brought in earlier in the week to get the bulk of the lot planted. And now it’s up to the 20 or so volunteers to do the rest. They’re planting 2,100 tree saplings on 2 acres of land.

The samplings, donated by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, are a mix of native tree species: white pine, quaking aspen, red oak and black locust.

Twelve-year-old Trey Slavonic is here with his dad and little brother.

This is important because it helps cover up all the mistakes people have done in the mining and taking the coal off from the top layers,” he said. “Makes it look more natural and have a better and more habitat for the animals.” 

Ron and Trey Slavonic plant saplings on reclaimed mine land in the Moshannon State Forest as part of an ongoing reforestation project. Photo: Andy Kubis


Helping a Threatened Species

Approximately half of this 45 acre site will be left as grassland, benefitting the wild elk in the region. The tree planting will also help the golden-winged warbler, a migratory songbird that breeds in Pennsylvania. Populations have declined by two-thirds since the 1960s.

Laura Bray, program coordinator for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, oversees this reforestation effort across the state. Bray says the hope is that the warblers will be attracted to this spot as the trees start grow.

“It’s reliant on young forest habitat. So our goal here is to create that habitat for breeding purposes,” Bray said. “It’s nice to have these edges where you have mature forests and then you have some grassland. You’ll have some shrubs and then some trees that will mature to full size. It’s a good opportunity for us to make the site productive again.”

PEC received grant money from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Pennsylvania Forestry Association and Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds to cover all costs associated with the planting except for the tree seedlings. This is the fourth year PEC has been doing these projects. This year, they will have reforested about 75 acres of public public and private land.

“We’re excited to continue to grow this program and do more,” Bray said. “There’s a lot of a lot of opportunity for reforestation across the state.”

It will be about 50 years before there’s a mature forest here again. Scott Eggerud, the forester, hopes the volunteers will come back to see how the trees they’ve planted are doing. Though, he says it’s not just about growing trees.

“The trees are an indicator of the quality of that site,” he said. “If we’re growing nice trees that tells us that we have a very healthy ecosystem.”

Now that the planting is done on this site, next is the Gallitzin State Forest in Cambria County.

April 29, 2019

Penn State News: Penn State DuBois wildlife technology students help to reclaim PA forests

DUBOIS, Pa. — A group of wildlife technology students at Penn State DuBois have contributed to reclaiming some area mine land while gaining valuable, real-world lessons. Lecturer in Wildlife Technology Carrie O’Brien took two sections of her class to a site in the Moshannon State Forest in Elk County in late April to help plant trees in a large-scale effort to reforest a 35-acre portion of public ground.

The reclamation project the students volunteered with is a partnership between the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC), a non-profit conservation organization headquartered in Pittsburgh. The project is also funded, in part, by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

“Our goal is to return mine lands to a productive state,” said Laura Bray, a program coordinator with PEC.

Bray noted that the Moshannon forest site was first reclaimed when mining halted there decades ago, using traditional reclamation techniques. The site was initially revegetated with cool-season grasses and some non-native pines that are stunted in growth. The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative refers to sites like this as “Legacy Sites.” Using the Forestry Reclamation Approach, developed by the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, more favorable site conditions for tree growth will be created.

“Due to heavy soil compaction caused by traditional reclamation methods, many of these sites do not become productive forests, and in some cases, trees weren’t planted at all,” Bray explained. “In other cases, you have non-native trees. So, we identify these legacy mine lands and essentially, we re-reclaim them using the Forestry Reclamation Approach to restore forest cover.”

DCNR Oil and Gas Forester Evan Hoffman further explained that highly compacted soil, the result of methods formerly used to cover up old strip mines, makes for very poor growing conditions. With soil packed so tightly, root structures of most trees and other plants cannot gain a foothold.

Hoffman said, “We couldn’t get much to grow here on this site besides grass and clover. We want to vegetate these openings with some trees and provide more food and cover for the wildlife.”

The first step in getting those trees to grow is to loosen that compacted soil. To do so, workers employ bulldozers and excavators equipped with a tool known as a ripping shank, which works much like an oversized farm plow. Criss-crossing the plot with the shank plunging into the earth, they’re able to loosen eight-foot swaths with each pass, going up to three feet deep.

“They loosen the soil so the trees can grow and take root,” Bray said.

At this point, volunteers like the Penn State DuBois Wildlife Technology students come in and the tree planting begins. Graduates of this program qualify for careers in fields such as environmental conservation, wildlife conservation, forestry, fishery sciences, and more. Field work such as this could be part of their daily lives in the future, and volunteer opportunities like this help them to gain experience.

O’Brien said, “They get to see what’s going on right in their back yard, and that’s a really great experience. It’s great to have the students be part of this partnership with DCNR and PEC, to get involved in these partnerships, and to learn how to plant trees and why we plant trees. They’re also getting the chance to network with other professionals in the field and be a part of a really fascinating project that will provide great habitat down the road.”

Representatives from PEC and DCNR instructed the students on best practices for planting the trees using dibble bars, special tools used by foresters that quickly and efficiently pierce the ground, creating a hole for the sapling to be placed. Such tools help greatly with larger reforestation efforts such as this, where nearly 23,800 trees will be planted on approximately 35 acres. The remaining 20 acres of this 55-acre site will be left for grass lands, which benefits wildlife in other ways, such as providing different types of wildlife habitat. Students learned from these conservation professionals how to best place the trees for optimum growth, how to use the tools involved, and more.

Wildlife Technology student Eli Depaulis of York, Pennsylvania, said of the experience, “Better to learn by doing. It’s one thing to learn in a book, but to come out and do it hands-on and actually experience it is definitely a beneficial reinforcement to our classroom learning.”

Classmate Bryant Miloser of Marion Center, Pennsylvania, added, “There is a lot of extra opportunity that we have in this program to learn things hands-on. I think we remember so much more when we are out here learning like this.”

On this day, the site was being planted with 500 white pine, 500 quaking aspen, 100 red oaks and 250 black locusts, all donated from a DCNR nursery where they were grown from seedlings.

This is an effort not to be completed in one day, and the Wildlife Technology students were not able to finish up on their own. DCNR and PEC invite the public to volunteer for another planting day at the site scheduled for Saturday, May 4.  More information and registration is available online at, or contact Laura Bray at 412-481-9400, extension 212, or [email protected]

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