Why the Government Should NOT Fund Tree Planting on MTR Sites

According to the AP,  “The Obama administration is mulling a proposal for a new jobs program with the aim of planting trees on Appalachian mountaintops that have been scalped by mining companies in search of coal.” The money would go to a group called the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative. On the surface, this seems like a great way to reclaim mountaintop removal sites and at the same time bring jobs to the region.

 My problem with the plan is this: federal money will be used to create a facade of a forest that mountaintop removal industries can point to and say “See, Reclamation is Possible!”

Let’s break this down. First of all, if anyone should be paying to fix this mess, it should be the  mountaintop removal industry who made it and not a government which is already cutting public funds in the name of “debt.” Secondly, the ARRI can only create a facade of a forest. Only a handful of species will be planted, and these with an eye towards eventual profitibility and not ecosystem restoration. See my post Wildlife In Appalachia for a description of this area’s ecology, the conditions that produce it, and a comprehensive list of the species destroyed by mountaintop removal.  

Of most concern to me is the effect a facade of a forest will have on coal industry propaganda efforts.  Currently, reclaimed mine sites are a public relations liability. Not wanting to foot the bill to grow trees, the industry is content with berating us on the beauty of lespidesia fields in the hopes that eventually we will believe it.  In sum, this plan will amount to a federal subsidy to the PR wing of the coal industry and justify MORE mountaintop removal.

While there are merits to growing trees on mtr sites, not the least of which is a probable reduction in flooding, this must not be done until mountaintop removal is BANNED. And then the funds should come out of Don Blankenship’s bulging pockets.

What follows are more concerns about this project. These from someone “in the know” :

1) That they haven’t convinced me that they are promoting ecology over economy, meaning that they’re not really looking at reforestation through the lens of attempting to restore the natural habitat, but more through the lens of planting economically profitable species.  When I challenged Patrick on a statement he made about ‘economic use,’ he quickly switched back to his guise of seeing himself as a “buddah planting trees,” and said his main concern was the ecology.

2) That ARRI might be used as a greenwashing tool.  Trust me, Van and the CEQ are not fooled by this.  They understand the extent of land/forest impacts from MTR, and I’ve provided a comment to them about how little of the affected area would be reforested through the current ARRI funding proposal (something like 1% or so, can’t remember exactly).

3) That the public is being asked to foot the bill.  Basically, ARRI is pursuing funding for their program through private foundations and the federal government.  This is problematic.  The funding should come from an additional tax on coal beyond the current special reclamation tax.  It should not come from public sources or private foundations who could use their money to benefit the work of non-profits rather than of the Office of Surface Mining.  The OSM itself should be held partially accountable for failing to uphold the law regarding reclamation, and should require the state’s to get more money from the coal companies in order to pay for reforestation efforts.

4) That it wont work.  Patrick Angel and the ARRI associated researchers are claiming that there is a high survivability rate for the trees they plant.  They base their claims on sites that were planted 5-10 years ago.  Not nearly enough time for knowing whether or not the trees will survive, and there is hardly an accounting of whether the trees that do survive are native trees or not.  An olive tree that grows in harsh conditions anyway does not count as a successful reforestation effort.  Getting a hemlock to survive, or a maple, or a sycamore, or actually, all three together, now that might convince me.  However, for the lands already impacted, we do have to try, but the public shouldn’t have to pay for it.

5) That Patrick seems to think, or at least purports, that sandstone and shale fragments and dust that results from the blasting of bedrock counts as soil.  He uses the term “weathered sandstone” in order to describe pulverized sandstone, and puts that out as a replacement for soil.  So overall, a dishonest description of the process and its potential for success calls for serious concern, especially since Patrick is asking the CEQ to provide support for the program.

6) They are hailing this as green jobs.  Which isn’t a bad thing, as long as new surface mining is prevented.  Also, they appear to plan on using alot of volunteers, though they are claiming to be asking for money in order to hire local workers.  So I’m not positive exactly which way that will go.  I do know that Patrick basically came up with a weak answer on the spot when I asked him how the jobs would be ensured to be year-round jobs.  He said, “4 months gathering seed, 4 months planting, and 4 months in a nursery.”  Now, first of all, as I said, he came up with that on the spot.  Second of all, that does not show that each job created through planting would also exist in the gathering and nursery phases.  Third of all, there is only one known nursery in the state (according to Patrick, I haven’t checked on that).  That does offer hope for the creation of new nurseries, and if the program was planned right, the jobs could be permanent.  However, the permanence would initially rely on a permanent source of funding from the federal government, and then on the creation of private businesses that would hire and retain the workers.  HOWEVER, private businesses are going to be inclined to grow commercially profitable species, rather than ecologically necessary and native species.

So, overall, the program is on the surface needed, but there are serious issues with it as it exists.  What needs to happen is that there needs to be a permanent fund set up that is paid for by the coal companies, and put to appropriate use.

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2 Responses to “Why the Government Should NOT Fund Tree Planting on MTR Sites”

  1. Are they planning on planting trees with the TIMBER VALUE in mind – i.e. Timber farms? Or are they planning on re-naturalizing for the future health of the environment? The forest COULD heal eventually given enough years (a couple hundred maybe?) and given a chance to start over. Mother Earth will ultimately rework the springs and buried streams AFTER MANY GENERATIONS. The mountains, however will never grow back, and there will always be pockets of severely toxic areas that may never come back with healthy forest or water… And this all assumes that it will be re-naturalized and then LEFT THE HECK ALONE!

  2. Hey calhoun,

    They are planning reclamation that brings “economic value.” I can only take this to mean timber farms.

    As for reworking the burried streams, I would suggest it would take much longer than a few hundred years. The hollows are what make the ecology so special. This is where the mind-boggling diversity is found and sustained by an equally mind-boggling complex of interactions between topography, fungi, and decomposition.

    It took millions of years for such unique ecosystems to develop. It will take a very, very long time for the unnatural plateaus to be dissected again. And even then, there will be the forever toxic areas that you mention.

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