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

June 17, 2019

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.

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.

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