Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

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This news story originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

April 18, 2005

Orie L. Loucks

Mine reclamation leaves grass but not employment

Recent Gazette correspondents have cited progress in reclamation of West Virginia mountaintop mining sites. One writer called them beautiful places. Apparently, we are to be impressed by the beauty in engineered greening of what might otherwise have been a moonscape. Awards for wild turkey and waterfowl habitat are cited. (However, turkey have come back almost everywhere oak is present, and waterfowl habitat is a tiny percentage of the reclaimed mountaintop mining lands.) Just within the last few years, we are told there has even been some success with tree planting.

What is missing in this praise of mountaintop reclamation is any mention of requirements in the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act that the mined land be restored to productive functioning.

Studies that my students and I conducted in the Coal Valley in 1998-99 showed that 10 percent of the land area had been mined or converted to valley fill, and another 10 percent was being permitted for future mining and filling. These studies showed that grasses and a few forbs had been re-established in most places to create green cover, but less than 2 percent of the land area had any tree seedlings.

The question we must ask ourselves is: Does recovery of function under SMCRA require a yield that is useful to society, or is growing a sea of grass sufficient? One must also ask what landowner is satisfied with the financial return from growing grass cover where there is no corresponding livestock to graze it?

The historic productive functioning of these lands has been for timber, and forest harvests were, until recently, an expanding natural resource base in West Virginia. With good management, timber harvesting should be seen as a major source of land revenue and employment from mountaintop reclamation lands, but it isnt. One should expect to go back to the same lands every 30 years to harvest new growth, but the withered land ethic of major landowners in West Virginia accepts the big-city view of go once over for coal and convert to grass. To be beautiful, we need to do better.

Compare the dollar value of resources being lost to West Virginians when mountaintop removal mine sites are not restored to productive forests. We have a long record of forest inventories in West Virginia, done jointly with the U.S. Forest Service since the 1950s. A report covering the period 1977 to 1989 shows the annual increase in wood volume to be 2.6 percent per year. This is a relatively standard growth rate in any area of good rainfall, and corresponds to satisfactory real interest rates on money (excluding inflation).

A remeasurement of hundreds of plots in West Virginia in 1995 showed that from 1989 to 1996, forest growth each year had declined to 0.3 percent of the previous years standing volume, a reduction of over 80 percent in annual returns.

Papers Ive published on this sharp loss identify several main factors. The most important is a major increase in the cull factor present in the living trees, possibly due to once-widespread forest fires, but also due to the loss of soil calcium induced by acid rain from the burning of coal. Also important is the loss of productive timberland in West Virginia when surface-mined land is not restored to growing forest.

The income from harvests of well-managed tree growth has been estimated to be $60 per acre, and from natural nutrient cycling, recreation and climate regulation services an additional $240 per acre. The reduced forest growth shown in the 1995 forest remeasurement translates to a loss of $2.66 billion for the state of West Virginia, of which $800 million derives from the reduced forest growth alone. Expressed in terms of jobs for West Virginians, these losses are about the same as the total current employment in the coalfields.

So, consider again the question of whether a sea of grass on mountaintop removal sites can be seen as beautiful. What productive value is being sustained for the next generation? What long-term renewable resource jobs are being created? Is the reclamation which is actually conversion from forest to grass building a basis for future employment of West Virginians when the coal runs out or is replaced by renewable energy? Clearly the answers are no, and those who see beauty in reclamation that yields no long-term productivity and no jobs are in delusion.

There are so many sources of beauty in the West Virginia mountains, one cannot list them all. But one must start with the mountains and the forests. The forests were the source of wealth for the settlers, and the mountains are a physical source of beauty. Both are at the core of the West Virginian culture, and of an economy that should be renewable after coal. Leveling the mountains and not reclaiming the forest impairs what could have been beautiful and would be sustainable. Let us end the delusion and build from what we know is valuable to future generations.

Loucks is a professor emeritus at Miami University in Ohio. He has published in many journals and can be reached at (513) 523-3444 or loucksol@muohio.edu.


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