BlogRepairing the Damage and Investing in our Natural Infrastructure

Appalachian regional reforestation initiative: Virginia Tech Powell River Project

April 17, 2024

Situated on a 1700-acre center in Wise County sits the Powell River Project Research and Education Center (PRP), a public-private research and outreach center. The center is a partnership between Virginia Tech, natural resource industries, environmental organizations, and other educational affiliates and has spearheaded research into the Forestry Reclamation Approach (FRA) over its more than four decades of existence.

When the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) was first passed in 1977, mine operators were charged with establishing “a diverse, effective, and permanent vegetative cover of the same seasonal variety and native to the area… and capable of self-regeneration and plant succession…” The PRP’s research in this field has provided invaluable insight for foresters and forest managers in adopting best practices for reclamation approaches. Seminal forestry researchers, such as Carl Zipper and Jim Burger, have used the PRP’s site to identify the impacts of new grading and seeding techniques for sustainable and diverse ecosystem restoration, applied research for coal-mined land reforestation, and feasibility studies on woody biomass production. Researchers at the site have found that restoring native tree species through the FRA is both a cost-effective and comprehensive manner through which coal operators can truly live up to SMCRA’s standards, while providing a direct economic and ecological benefit back to coal-mining communities.

Powell River Project researchers conduct stream quality studies. Credit: Powell River Project

From coal refuse revegetation and mine land reforestation to water resource management and mine soil development, the PRP has provided an opportunity for foresters and landowners alike to learn best practices for coalfield land management. Since 1980, the center, one of the “leading facilities for mining-related research and education programs in the world,” has welcomed over half a million visitors eager to learn about their field-based programs on active and former mine sites. PRP has had remarkable success in their applied programs identifying local environmental concerns and establishing a research-driven focus to resolving them. Field tours and technical workshops provide tangible benefits to the community while their partnership with Virginia Tech allows for a wide array of disciplinary research to guide them as new challenges arise. Their visibility in the region, from participating in nearby schools to working with small businesses, grows these local-activity components through new sponsored programs for volunteer engagement.

Studies conducted at the PRP’s sites have identified additional ecological benefits to former mined lands through forest succession. Succession is the natural process whereby the forest, after a natural or man-made disturbance, regains its original composition. Forest succession rates on mined lands where the FRA is utilized are faster and have greater diversity than on non-FRA reclaimed sites. Succession can vary across sites due to the geological terrain, type and magnitude of disturbance, soil quality, and native vegetation. For many of the mined sites in southwest Virginia, the PRP has found that “it would require several hundred years for the mid- to late-successional hardwoods to dominate if forest restoration were left entirely to nature.” The state of Virginia designates mined land planted with trees as “unmanaged forestland,” “commercial forestland,” or “managed forest” within mining permits. Bond release requirements are similar for managed and unmanaged forestland. However, unmanaged forestland is usually planted with timber and nitrogen-fixing shrubs.

Within the commercial forestry industry, at least 400 native tree stocks and 40 wildlife shrubs per acre are required to achieve healthy forest growth. This is also true for bond release in Virginia, where coal operators must submit plans for post-mining land use with these metrics. Compacted mine soil limits the reforestation success rates on older mines, however, leading to lower survival rates and reduced soil quality overall. This compaction increases erosion, restricts vegetation growth, and limits available water access for plants, such that even when former mine sites are technically reforested within this framework for bond release, many stocks never fully mature leading to sprawling acres of patchwork trees dotting the landscape. Towns nearby these sites face the threat, too, of future erosion and landslides when reclamation is not done properly.

The FRA has proven to be both a cost effective and science-driven method for post-mine reclamation, benefiting operators and landowners alike. Costs to reclaim mined lands using the FRA are comparable to, or less expensive than, reclamation from traditional reforestation approaches that tend to compact soil and plant less high-value vegetation. Bulldozer work-hours, regrading and reseeding, and groundcover are estimated to save around $125/acre, while seed, fertilizer, and other planting material costs are estimated to save $75/acre. PRP estimates that under conventional reclamation, low-value species can be planted at $250/acre while high-quality hardwoods, such as oak, can cost $500/acre. When the FRA is not implemented, tree survival decreases and future replanting can be required with lower-value species, at an estimated replanting cost of $200/acre.

In order to live up to the reforestation intent of SMCRA, operators should utilize FRA-based reforestation techniques. The FRA can be summed up in five steps. First, the creation of suitable rooting medium for tree growth that is not less than four feet deep, and consisting of a topsoil, weathered sandstone, or a combination of these materials, which involves the use of heavy dozers and other equipment. Second, applying a loosely graded topsoil to create a non compacted growth medium to reduce root competition. Third, using a groundcover species compatible with tree growth. Fourth, planting two types of trees that are suitable for wildlife and soil stability as well as commercially-valuable tree crops. Fifth, using proper tree-planting techniques from nurseries that best understand the FRA to prevent seedlings from drying out during storage or handling, and planting in late winter through early spring. Given the costs for operators to reclaim mine sites, reforesting sites once with the FRA is both a financially-sound and ecologically-beneficial solution.

Local students attend an educational instruction at a Powell River Project site. Credit: Powell River Project

With the decline of the coal industry over the past three decades, the PRP’s primary service region in Virginia’s three principal coal-mining counties – Wise, Dickenson, and Buchanan – provides invaluable insight into how research and private-public partnerships can effectively reforest former mine sites while maintaining economically diverse communities. In 1980, when the PRP first opened, the coal industry employed around 242,000 people nationally and around 15,000 people in Virginia specifically. Over the next decade and a half, the industry was reduced to fewer than 7,000, and as of 2022, employs fewer than 2,500. In the 1990s, the coal industry provided direct financial assistance for the PRP as well as in-kind support on reforestation research projects. However, as the coal industry has declined, financial and in-kind support has declined as well, requiring the PRP to rely more heavily on ARRI partnerships, their science and core teams, and related forestry reclamation organizations and agencies. This means that with the decline of private industry support for this valuable research, further support for ARRI, which does not yet have an appropriated budget, will be critical for the future.

For more information on the Powell River Project’s research impacts, you can read their reports here: