The Green Miles

The Green Miles

It was a scene of destruction, unimaginable in its scale. On federal land, under the watchful eye of a U.S. forester, two bulldozers plowed through the hillside, destroying everything in their path. Shrubs and trees snapped like kindling. The barren ground left behind was now covered in cold rainwater, a stark reminder of the devastation. Amidst the chaos, a single young oak tree stood, seemingly accentuating the mayhem.

This was the scene that Patrick Angel, a seasoned scientist from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, presented on an early-winter tour in 2018. For 25 years, he oversaw the strip-mining and mountaintop-removal mining of coal, instructing coal companies to restore the land by packing the remaining rubble and planting grass. However, in 2002, Angel realized that something was terribly wrong. The forests of Appalachia, once rich and teeming with life, were not coming back. Over 1.5 million acres of land that should have been covered in trees were now desolate fields. Angel felt a tremendous amount of guilt for his role in this ecological disaster.

Born and raised in the same mountains that had been devastated by mining, Angel dedicated the rest of his career to undoing the damage. This is the process he proudly showcased on the tour. After the bulldozers had cleared the area, an even larger machine would rip open the ground, making room for growing tree roots. Then, volunteers would descend on the site and plant a variety of trees. What was once a thriving forest, turned into a strip mine, and then a rubble pile, would become a forest once more.

Thanks to Angel’s efforts, over 187 million trees have been planted on former mine sites, covering an area larger than six times the size of the District of Columbia. This ambitious restoration effort is driven by local individuals and organizations, working with small budgets and little recognition. When Kathy Newfont, a professor of Appalachian history, first heard about these reforestation efforts, she felt a surge of hope for the region.

But Angel’s ambitions reach even further. He aims to not only revive the forests but also rejuvenate the broken Appalachian economy. Can forests truly revive one of America’s most troubled places?

Appalachia is more than just coal country; it is also forest country. Over millions of years, one of the world’s most diverse and complex forests assembled itself in the steep slopes and deep valleys of Appalachia. The region is home to a staggering array of species, including salamanders, freshwater mussels, and migratory birds. Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone is estimated to house 100,000 species.

The endless demand for coal led to the rapid deforestation of Appalachia. After the trees were gone, the industry turned to the coal beneath the ground, providing jobs and stability for the people of eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and other coalfield states. Coal became an integral part of their lives, sustaining families and communities. However, coal mining had severe consequences. It devastated the land, poisoned the water, and contributed to dangerous climate change. The coal counties of Appalachia, once rich in resources, now suffer from poverty.

Growing up in the mountains, Angel witnessed the destructive nature of coal mining firsthand. He joined the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in 1973 with a mission to restore the land. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, passed in 1977, set guidelines for mine reclamation and established the federal agency that Angel worked for. While progress was made in curbing some of the environmental damage caused by mining, a new technology emerged that made strip mining look quaint: mountaintop removal.

Mountaintop removal mining involved the use of explosives, draglines, and bulldozers to quickly extract coal. Under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, companies were required to restore the land to its original state. However, the law left the term “higher and better use” undefined, leading to the creation of grassy balds on the majority of mountaintops.

Academic foresters, including James Burger and Donald Graves, were appalled by the aftermath of coal mining. They approached Angel, who initially dismissed their concerns. However, when Angel saw a reforestation experiment firsthand, he realized the magnitude of the damage. Grass could not restore the biodiversity and complexity that once characterized the Appalachian forests.

Angel and his colleagues organized the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative in 2004. The initiative advocated for the planting of trees on mine sites. Their efforts gained momentum, and soon, new mines in Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania were required to include reforestation as part of their reclamation plans. It was a step toward undoing the damage caused by mountaintop removal.

In 2009, under the Obama administration, Angel and Chris Barton, a forestry professor, proposed a government-funded conservation program worth $422 million. The program aimed to employ thousands of people in Appalachia, planting 125 million trees on reclaimed mine sites. However, the program never came to fruition, and subsequent administrations have rolled back regulations and environmental programs associated with coal mining.

Despite the setbacks, Angel and Barton persisted. They established Green Forests Work, a nonprofit organization that focused on reforestation efforts. They faced challenges, including the difficulty of hiring local workers and convincing landowners to participate. However, they remained committed to their cause, understanding that trees alone couldn’t solve all of Appalachia’s problems.

The journey to revive Appalachia’s economy is a long and arduous one, requiring a collective effort between people and the land. It won’t make headlines or offer quick solutions, but it represents a chance to rebuild eastern Kentucky. Angel, despite retiring from the government, continues to lead tree plantings for Green Forests Work as a volunteer. He refuses to give up on his mission.

Ultimately, planting trees is not a panacea for the issues facing Appalachia, but it is a step in the right direction. It is a testament to the resilience and dedication of the people who call this region home. By rebuilding forests and nurturing the land, there is hope for a new green economy in Appalachia, one that creates jobs, improves the environment, and revitalizes communities.

The Green Miles

  • Driven by individuals and organizations from Appalachia, tree planting is making a difference in revitalizing the region.
  • Appalachia is more than coal country; it is home to diverse and complex forests that were devastated by mining.
  • Patrick Angel, a former coal industry regulator, dedicated his career to undoing the damage caused by strip mining and mountaintop removal.
  • The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative was established to advocate for reforestation efforts on mine sites.
  • The Obama administration recognized the potential for green jobs in Appalachia, but the program was never implemented.
  • Green Forests Work, a nonprofit organization, continues to lead reforestation efforts in Appalachia.
  • While planting trees is not a cure-all, it represents a chance to rebuild the economy and communities in eastern Kentucky.
  • The journey to revive Appalachia’s economy requires collective effort and perseverance.
  • The ultimate goal is to create a new green economy in Appalachia, one that restores the environment and improves the lives of its residents.

For more information about tree planting and how it can make a difference, visit Tips Tree Planting.