The Case for Reforesting Abandoned Mineland with Andy Norris and Timothy Perez

November 14, 2023
No items found.

The Appalachian Blue Ridge Forest system is the second most biodiverse forest system in North America outside of Mexico. The biodiversity of the Appalachian Forest is home to roughly 150 different tree species, covering 61,500 miles and twelve States in the US. However, mineral mining has drastically altered more than 1 million acres of land in Appalachia. 

An abandoned mineland site in Appalachia prepared for replanting with Living Carbon’s trees.

In West Virginia alone, there are more than 200,000 acres that need some form of land restoration from mining. Local ecosystems already disturbed by mining are being overtaken by invasive plants, which hinders the regrowth of forests and native plants. These areas have become ideal locations for Living Carbon’s reforestation projects and for the planting of some of Living Carbon’s 2.7M seedlings. 

Reforesting abandoned minelands is a difficult challenge because of the extraction process for coal and mining. Soil is stripped of its top layers and often contaminated and then is complicated by erosion. Despite these challenges, the potential of rehabilitating these landscapes is a compelling incentive for reforestation.

The challenges ahead

Mining activities alter Appalachian ecosystems. To reach subterranean coal, mountaintops are leveled by heavy machinery and dynamite, which disrupts watershed hydrology and increases erosion. Not only do these activities strip away topsoil, but they also leave behind barren, compacted, and contaminated land that makes revegetation difficult.

The basic outline for coal mining in Appalachia. The mountain is leveled until it reaches the coal seam, and the valley fill is created to allow drainage from the mining site. Source: Environmental Protection Agency.

“Working on mineland is some of the most severe and difficult land management you can imagine in this industry,” Andy Norris, Living Carbon’s Forestry Operations Manager explains.

Andy Norris has recently joined Living Carbon to implement afforestation and reforestation carbon projects across the Eastern United States. “In the process of mining these mountains for coal, there is a lot of soil displacement and vegetative regrowth that occurs. The residual site can have many obstacles that must be overcome before a new forest can be established.”

Invasive species, quick to exploit disturbed ecosystems, compete fiercely with native vegetation, hindering the establishment of a diverse and resilient forest.

It is a challenge Andy has the experience to face. With over thirty years in the forest industry, which includes traditional forest management as well as regenerative tree farming, Andy understands what it takes to grow a forest on land that is not immediately ready for trees.

“I first look at aerial photography, 3D images of terrain, and soil type overlaid together online,” Andy explains when asked about assessing minelands to plant on.

“Elevation, aspect, and terrain are all very important, as well as certain characteristics of neighboring sites.” He elaborates that these factors and more are considered when looking for minelands that would be suitable for reforestation.

Once we have scouted promising properties online, the Forestry Team partners with local landowners and will visit the site for an initial reconnaissance, and arrange for the soil to be systematically sampled for testing. When data has been collected and assessed, a forest management plan is created and forestry service providers are contracted to site prepare and plant the trees we provide. Through this process, we build a deeper relationship with local experts to learn how to best establish our trees. We also work with local natural resource agencies to seek guidance regarding project sites, species composition, and make sure we have any necessary approvals to plant our projects. As of today, Living Carbon has been able to plant trees in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. 

“In order for a site to grow a successful forest, the competing vegetation needs to be controlled and soil conditions have to be right,” Andy said, “It’s tricky, but can be done.”

The benefits of planting on abandoned mineland

“Habitat loss is the biggest driver of extinction, and restoring forests can reestablish habitat and the forest ecosystem connectivity,” explains Timothy Perez.

With a PhD background in Ecology and Botany, Tim recently joined Living Carbon as  Lead Carbon Scientist. He is passionate about Living Carbon’s forestry projects in Appalachia and is working on forecasting the carbon removal generated from planting on these abandoned minelands,  Living Carbon’s goal is to plant our climate-smart poplar trees alongside 10 different native tree species, like the American Sycamore and Yellow Poplar. By reintroducing native tree species, we not only restore the natural balance but also create habitats for the local plant and animal species.

A reforested mineland in Jarrahdele, Australia from 1963 to 1998. Source: Advances in Landscape Architecture
Living Carbon’s trees planted on a reclaimed mining site in Pennsylvania.

Reforestation also plays a crucial role in soil remediation, with trees acting to minimize runoff and erosion. Tim points out, “Tree roots hold soil in place, which help retain nutrients, increase soil complexity, purifies runoff, and even replenishes the water table.”

With land partnerships in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Living Carbon aims to remove carbon and restore the diversity of ecosystems lost in mineral and coal mining.

“Biodiversity begets biodiversity,” said Tim, “It’s a positive feedback loop.”

As Living Carbon continues to navigate the challenges of reforesting abandoned minelands, working with local landowners in the Appalachian region on how best to tackle this endeavor is at the forefront of our goals. Collaborating with experts, we aim to manage invasive species, promote the establishment of native vegetation, and further our mission of transforming mine lands into thriving, biodiverse ecosystems.

You can find Andy Norris and Tim Perez both on Linkedin.

Sign up