Partnership in Action Blog
Photo Credit: Nikki Davis

Partnership in Action: Susquehanna River Basin Commission

Returning forests to reclaimed mine lands

You always hear how coal from Pennsylvania fueled the Industrial Revolution and helped the United States win two World Wars. Many people are also aware of the scars on our lands left from that mining.

Those scars are steadily being reclaimed by primarily the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation.

Over the last 40 years, reclamation usually entailed the compaction of the surface soil to limit the infiltration of surface water to the overburden buried that could give rise to mine drainage. However, those compacted soils have left many of these thousands of acres of reclaimed parcels devoid of tree growth.

Enter the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI), an effort within the Federal Office of Surface Mining to reforest these reclaims throughout Appalachia using their Forest Reclamation Approach (FRA). This effort is gaining traction through a partnership between DEP, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC), CBF, the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Green Forests Work, Pennsylvania Game Commission, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Each of the last few years has seen an increase in reclaimed mine lands being reforested through this partnership.

FRA is a five-step process to return forests onto those lands that have been reclaimed through soil compaction techniques.

The first step creates a suitable rooting medium for good tree growth that is no less than four feet deep and comprised of topsoil, weathered sandstone, and/or the best available material. This is accomplished by "ripping" the site with a D-8 or larger-sized dozer with a 4-foot ripping shank attachment.

The second step is to make sure the new rooting medium remains loosely graded to create a non-compacted growth medium. This involves "ripping" the site in a checkerboard-type fashion upon 8-foot centers so as not to "dozer-over" previously ripped areas.

Step three is the planting of two types of trees: early succession species for wildlife and soil stability; and commercially valuable crop trees like oak, maple, and cherry.

Step four is the use of proper tree planting techniques that lean more on hand-planting the seedlings rather than machine-planting.

Tree seedling amounts suggested by the FRA are 680 or more seedlings per acre.

The last step is to seed the reforestation site lightly with ground covers compatible with those trees, as you do not want to outcompete the trees. More recent projects have even seeded with a pollinator mix, including milkweed, to help our struggling bee and Monarch butterfly populations.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the ARRI Partnership thought that all the planned reforestation projects would have to be postponed to 2021, due to numerous nurseries shutting down operations and distribution.

However, CBF and the Keystone 10 Million Trees Partnership came to the rescue and helped provide most of the trees needed so that around 85 acres could be reforested, including a large percentage of trees planted at SRBC's Woodley Reforestation Project in the Sproul State Forest north of Renovo, PA. That project alone planted more than 50,000 trees of 18 different species on 35 acres of a former clay-surface mine site.

In 2021, the ARRI Partnership has once again increased our planned reforestation acreage to around 300. Those plantings will begin once the winter weather breaks in April and into early May, which is the best time to plant trees.

Our hope is that each year, we are able to increase our acreage and number of trees planted, because there are thousands of acres of reclaimed mine land opportunities in Pennsylvania.

—Thomas Clark, Susquehanna River Basin Commission Mine Drainage Program Coordinator