Restoring forests on surface coal mines in appalachia: A regional reforestation approach with global application

Christopher D. Barton, Kenton Sena, Teagan Dolan, Patrick Angel, Carl Zipper

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

1 Scopus citations


The Appalachian region of the United States is a land of contrast-people have suffered from poverty for decades, but the region abounds in natural resources. Appalachian forests support some of the greatest biological diversity in the world’s temperate region, but extraction of its abundant coal reserves has impacted the landscape. Surface mining poses a significant threat to the region via forest loss and fragmentation. Since the implementation of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977 (Public Law 95-87), more than 600,000 ha have been mined for coal, and efforts to reforest these areas had historically resulted in high seedling mortality, slow growth, and poor production. Research showed that highly compacted soils with inappropriate chemical characteristics and intense competition from ground cover were the biggest impediments to the establishment of productive forests on surface mines in the eastern United States (Ashby et al. 1978; Burger and Torbert 1997; Graves et al. 2000). Other obstacles for reforesting surface mines included lack of careful selection of a rooting medium for tree roots, selection of tree species that were not suited to site conditions, and improper tree planting techniques. Realizing the significance of these problems, enhanced efforts to address reforestation shortcomings were examined by regulatory, mining, and research groups alike to ensure that forests are restored to the region. Drawing on the recommendations generated by surface mine reclamation research over the past 80 years, a five-step system to reforest coal-mined land called the Forestry Reclamation Approach (FRA) was developed. The steps in the FRA are to (1) create a suitable rooting medium for good tree growth that is no less than 1.2 m deep and comprises topsoil, weathered sandstone, and/or the best available material; (2) loosely grade the topsoil or topsoil substitutes placed on the surface to create a noncompacted growth medium; (3) use native and noncompetitive ground covers that are compatible with growing trees; (4) plant two types of trees-early succession species for wildlife and soil stability and commercially valuable crop trees; and (5) use proper tree planting techniques (Burger et al. 2005). Today, the FRA has been applied by many coal mining firms in the United States, millions of trees have been planted, ecosystem services have been returned to thousands of mined acres and the native Appalachian forest is returning (Zipper et al. 2011b). Successful reestablishment of the hardwood forest ecosystem that once dominated these sites, made possible by FRA, will provide a renewable, sustainable, multiuse resource that will create economic opportunities while enhancing the local and global environment. Although climate, geology, and soils will ultimately dictate agronomic prescriptions for global reforestation projects, the FRA provides a framework for developing a successful reforestation program that may be applied to other mining regions of the world

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSpoil to Soil
Subtitle of host publicationMine Site Rehabilitation and Revegetation
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9781498767620
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (all)
  • Environmental Science (all)
  • Engineering (all)


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