Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Turning the Black Gold Economy Green

Five years.

2,000 jobs.

175,000 acres.

125,000,000 trees.

628,868,602 pounds of carbon.

It’s a pretty simple equation, really. Maybe too simple for people to wrap their heads around. It sounds like a con – like it couldn’t really be that easy.

But it is.

Plant an acre of hardwood trees, and in six to ten years, they’ll take at least 1.63 metric tons of carbon a year out of the air. Plant 175,000 acres of trees, take 285,250 metric tons of carbon out of the air every year, create 2,000 jobs, and reforest a seventh of the land left treeless by strip mining in Appalachia.

The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, which includes the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, state mining agencies in the seven Appalachian coal states, universities, environmental groups, citizens and industry representatives, is talking about just such a project. And the White House is at least considering it.

The beauty of the project is that it doesn’t require an argument about the appropriateness of mountain top removal mining, a hot-button issue that has led to violence and arrests, particularly in the West Virginia coalfields. This is something we can do for the environment and for the economy now. We don’t have to wait for a fight to play out in Congress or the courts.

This project, known as a Green Forest Works for Appalachia, deals only with formerly mined lands that are in a state of arrested natural succession. In plain language, land that isn’t growing trees.

In order to prevent landslides, regulators required coal companies to compact mine spoils. While it was the best science at the time, we now know that the combination of 200-ton trucks running repeatedly over the ground and bulldozers “tracking in” the rock and dirt creates a runoff coefficient roughly equivalent to a shopping center parking lot. That makes it impossible for tree roots to penetrate the soil, and contributes to erosion.

Add to that the fact that coal companies can hydroseed aggressive grasses, achieve the required percentage of ground cover and recover their bonds quickly, and it’s little wonder that Appalachia has ended up with somewhere between 500,000 and a million acres of barren grasslands with nary a tree in sight.

But several years of research has proven that trees will grow on those old, overly compacted sites, if they’re properly prepared. That means plowing the rocky ground at least four feet deep with a hook mounted on the back of a bulldozer.

Sites planted this spring by ARRI and its partner, the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team, have a 90-percent survival rate after six months. The projects also proved that both coal companies and environmentalists will turn out to plant trees on abandoned mine lands. The projects were so successful that the two in Kentucky won ARRI and the ACCWT the Governor’s Environmental Leadership Award.

There are the obvious environmental benefits to the project, including reduction of erosion, reduced flooding risks, habitat improvement and carbon sequestration, but there are also economic benefits. Unlike previous tree plantings on strip mines, the current project plants a variety of high-value native hardwoods – oak, hickory, ash, persimmon, beech, black cherry. For owners willing to wait – land companies for example – those trees could represent a managed forest resource that will provide a future stream of income when the coal is gone.

And then there are the jobs.

Under the plan now proposed, 2,000 local workers would be hired by the fifth year, planting trees up and down the mountain range, but with most of the work centered in the central Appalachians – Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia – where the bulk of strip mining has taken place. And these jobs would not be limited to manual laborers with dibble bars and tree bags. The project would require heavy equipment operators, foresters, surveyors and administrative personnel. It would pump money into transportation, tree nursery operations, and local service industries ranging from restaurants and hotels to equipment rentals.

Will planting trees replace coal mining? No. But it is a piece of the puzzle.

An industry that provides 2,000 jobs is at least a start, particularly since many of the skills required are transferable from the coal industry, where jobs will be lost in the coming years. There is also a push to get active mines to adopt the Forestry Reclamation Approach. That method leaves the top four-feet of rock and soil uncompacted, negating the need to plow the land, but still creating a demand for skilled tree planters, nursery workers, and foresters.

While none of this addresses the energy problem, it does leave room for other solutions.

Wind and solar will become more in demand in the future, and where better to build those facilities than on mine sites that can’t be reforested? And if we are building that infrastructure on abandoned mine sites, why can’t we build the components on the mine sites that were reclaimed as industrial sites?

The coal production curve turns downward in 10 years, and our challenge is to replace coal with a sustainable economy before that happens. One question remains: Is 10 years long enough to turn an economy based on black gold green?

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