BlogRepairing the Damage and Investing in our Natural Infrastructure

The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) Webinar Series: ARRI and the Mine Lands’ Remarkable Recovery

By February 22, 2024No Comments

February 22, 2024

In recent years, Congress has passed important support for the cleanup of hazardous abandoned mine lands (AML). However, this funding typically focuses on the most dangerous sites, rarely includes full reforestation of mine sites, and does not apply to coal mines permitted after 1977.

In recognition of this gap, the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) was established in 2004 to improve reforestation and revegetation success on AML and modern mine sites; its driving mission is to plant more high-value native trees, increase planted trees’ survival and growth rates, and expedite the establishment of forest habitats through natural succession on mine sites.

In the fall of 2023, Appalachian Voices, ReImagine Appalachia, National Wildlife Federation, and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center hosted a two-part webinar about the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) and its success in establishing healthy native forests on former mine sites. The two webinars explored how new investments in reforesting mine lands can create jobs, new economic opportunities, sequester carbon, and reduce flooding. ARRI has a proven track record of sustainable growth across the region, and we need federal funding to continue and grow this important work.  

ARRI estimates that there are still 1 million acres of non-forested, bond-released mined lands that could be reforested in the eastern US. There is a long way to go – but we are inspired by the work that has been done so far to promote the reforestation of former coal mines in the region. This blog post covers the first webinar and highlights some of the amazing work our speakers and their organizations are doing in Appalachia. To view their inspiring presentations, please check the recording of the webinar here.  

In part one, Reforesting Mine Lands: How the Forestry Reclamation Approach Works for Coal Communities, attendees learned about the history of ARRI’s partnerships and the science behind the Forestry Reclamation Approach (FRA) with speakers from the United States Forest Service, Green Forests Work, and Appalachian Voices. 

Developing the Forestry Reclamation Approach

The first speaker of the webinar was Mary Beth Adams, a retired forestry researcher with the US Forest Service. Mary Beth gave an overview of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, how it developed and its implementation, and what the larger outcomes are. ARRI developed as an answer to unsuccessful restoration efforts that left remediated mine lands covered in invasive grasses with hardly any trees. As a result, a coalition of scientists, citizens, industry, non-profit organizations, and federal and state agencies formed ARRI in 2004. Out of that coalition came the Forestry Reclamation Approach (FRA), an adaptive learning approach based on sound science. Its goal was, and still remains, to plant more high-value hardwood trees, to increase tree survival and growth rates, to expedite the establishment of forest habitat through natural succession, and to overall change how mines are reclaimed in Appalachia.  

The US Forest Service educates mine operators, mine owners, and landowners through the Forest Reclamation Advisories, which are short, technical papers about successful FRA processes. So far, there are 18 Advisories covering a range of topics related to forest reclamation, such as loosening compacted soil and re-establishing pollinator habitat. Besides providing written guidance, the ARRI core team also works with stakeholders directly to implement the FRA. Over 10,000 acres of successfully reforested mine lands throughout Central Appalachia show that the program is working and expanding throughout the region. 

The second speaker of the webinar was Chris Barton, a Professor of Forest Hydrology and Watershed Management who founded the non-profit Green Forests Work. Green Forests Work is a partner within ARRI, and since 2009, the organization has planted over 6 million trees on former mine land in Appalachia. Chris pointed to several obstacles when reclaiming former mine land, especially its compacted soil which makes tree growth more challenging and for water to penetrate, which leads to poorly reclaimed mine sites. Early experiments with the FRA showed that reclamation on low-compaction soil is much more successful than conventional reclamation approaches which were used prior to the FRA. Since then, Green Forests Work was able to successfully reforest many mine sites. For instance, the former Starfire Mine in Kentucky is now home to a well-established hardwood forest and a large-scale solar energy project, while at Guy Cove, the non-profit and its partners were able to re-establish a watershed surrounded by maturing trees.

Besides the re-establishment of a working ecosystem, mine land reforestation has other benefits, such as climate change mitigation and economic benefits. Green Forests Work collaborates with a mix of volunteers and contractors. In the early stages of reforestation, heavy equipment is used to loosen the soil, and knowledgeable foresters assist in the planting and maintenance of new vegetation. Many individuals in the Appalachian region have the skills to conduct this work, illustrating that ecological restoration may offer employment opportunities for local residents.

The third speaker of the webinar was Diana Dombrowski from Appalachian Voices who talked about a different economic aspect of mine reclamation: carbon removal and carbon markets. Diana defined carbon removal as the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere using nature-based solutions. Appalachian Voices is exploring the possibilities of reforesting former mine lands in connection with expanding carbon markets. The goal is to sell carbon credits, which could then help finance the mine reforestation work and benefit local communities. Appalachia’s science-based reclamation work, as described in the two previous presentations, is a good fit for the carbon sequestration-to-carbon market model. Appalachian Voices is currently at the stage of site selection for a pilot project to test this model. To learn more about this issue, please check out Appalachian Voices’ recent white paper.

Together, all three speakers told a vivid story about the past, present, and future of mine reclamation in Appalachia. Attendees learned about previous reclamation mistakes that were made, how those mistakes led to the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative and its successful implementation of the Forest Reclamation Approach, and the ecologic and economic potential of science-based mine reclamation for the future. Pictures, such as the ones from Guy Cove, speak for themselves and illustrate the importance of increased funding for reforestation programs such as ARRI. The second webinar, covered in a following blog post, delivered more exciting examples of how reforested mines can be an asset for Appalachia.         

Support Funding for the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative

ARRI’s successful reforestation has been proven over nearly two decades but the program has never received any direct funding. We ask that you sign the petition below to encourage Congress to include $5 million in funding for the ARRI program in their FY25 budget.