PIONEER, Tenn. – In a double-barreled approach to environmental restoration, Appalachian mountains scarred by strip-mining are being planted with American chestnut trees, a species that has been all but wiped out in the U.S. by a fungus.
For the past 30 years or so, federal regulations essentially said that once a forested mountainside was scraped open and the coal extracted, mine companies had to smooth the soil and seed it with grass.
But recently, federal regulators have begun promoting the planting of chestnuts and other hardwoods to improve drainage, reduce erosion and return the landscape to a more natural state.
The project has the added advantage of helping to bring the American chestnut back from the brink of extinction.
American chestnuts “were a critical part of the forest and they are gone now, for all intents and purposes,” said John Johnson, a former leader in the environmentalist group Earth First! and now an employee and student in the University of Tennessee forestry program. “So this in a way is like double research – like, how to bring chestnuts back and how to reclaim these sites.”
Earlier this month, 60 volunteers in a public-private partnership clambered over a coalfield on Zeb Mountain, 50 miles north of Knoxville, and planted chestnut seeds. The same thing will be done in the coming weeks in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia.
The Zeb Mountain planting was so popular, volunteers had to be turned away. Students, retirees, mining regulators, mine operators, researchers and conservationists participated. They planted more than 200 germinated nuts over a two-acre plot of rocks, boulders and sandstone.
With any luck, the seeds on Zeb Mountain will be 3- to 5-foot saplings next year. But the trees are still susceptible to blight. Barry Thacker, an environmental engineer and organizer of the planting, said they will probably live for only 10 or 15 years. But by then, scientists hope to have developed a blight-resistant hybrid.
Marshal Case, president and chief executive of the Vermont-based American Chestnut Foundation, a partner in the venture, said he has long dreamed of seeing chestnuts planted on reclaimed mine sites in Appalachia, for this was where America’s great chestnut forests used to be.
“It just seemed like it would be a natural for us. We could do a lot of things, including healing the land,” he said. The American chestnut “is a legacy of hope now. People are getting the idea that this tree has a tremendous future for the landscape in the Eastern forest.”