A spring break alternative: Planting trees on an abandoned coal mine

A small group of students spent spring break planting trees on reclaimed land of an abandoned coal mine in central Kentucky.
Biology majors Samantha Jones (left) and Jordan Chittick dig into rocky soil to plant a tree on the site of an abandoned coal mine in Daniel Boone National Forest.

What did you do over spring break?

Go someplace warm? Visit family and friends back home?

Plant trees on the reclaimed land of an abandoned coal mine in central Kentucky?

That’s what a handful of students and a couple of Radford University faculty members – and one librarian – did as part of their week away from books, lectures and labs.

They loaded up in two vans, drove five and half hours to Daniel Boone National Forest, grabbed some shovels and buckets full of seedlings and planted white and red oak, black cherry, white pine and some hybridized American chestnut trees for a few hours on a 40-something degree Wednesday in March.

Good planting weather.

“It wasn’t raining or snowing this time. We’ve had trips like that before,” said Geospatial Sciences Professor Rick Roth, who has been organizing alternative spring break trips, in good weather and bad, like this one for several years.

The Radford University volunteer group worked with Green Forests Work, a nonprofit organization aiming to re-establish the health and productivity of Appalachian forests that once were mined for coal and then left abandoned. Coal companies planted non-native grasses, leaving the area bearing no resemblance to the lush mountains that once stood there.

“We were able to see firsthand how mining has influenced the Appalachian landscape, culture and community,” said Lisa Dinkle, an instruction librarian for McConnell Library.

Green Forests Work removes the exotic vegetation. It cross-rips the soil with bulldozers to loosen compacted ground, and then organizers volunteers to plant native trees.

“It was interesting to learn about the different types of vegetation that could be implemented to help re-establish the landscape and the opportunity to introduce such species as elk onto these landscapes,” said Cotey Bentley, a senior from Christiansburg who is majoring in geospatial science and minoring in biology.

The project was “fun and insightful” for Samantha Jones, a junior environmental biology major from Pulaski. “It was extremely rewarding to see what dedicating a small amount of time can contribute to the near future,” she said.

The Radford students worked along with other students from Drew and Xavier universities on the national forest site.

“What our group is doing is a drop in the bucket in terms of the scale of what needs to be fixed,” Roth said. “The good news is we can correct the impacts made by mining.”

Senior Leah Cort knows the group is making an impact. She went on last year’s trip to a different location in Daniel Boone National Forest, near London, Kentucky. She was so inspired, she knew she had pick up a shovel and do it again.

“It’s truly a great feeling knowing you’re helping by giving back what was taken by such a devastating industry,” said Cort, a biology major from Virginia Beach.

That’s one of the main objectives of the alternative spring break program.

“I wanted our students to get a taste of doing some meaningful volunteer work,” Roth said. “Something that could make an impact.”

Before the planting commenced, students spent time preparing and learning about the project, the mining industry and the region.

On the Monday before loading into the Kentucky-bound vans, they met in a Cook Hall classroom. There, Roth talked to students about coal surface mining regulations. Biology Assistant Professor Matt Close, who co-led the excursion, spoke about the region’s bio-diversity and Appalachian Studies Director Theresa Burriss gave a lesson about the cultural aspects of coal mining and mountaintop removal.

On the way to Kentucky, the group stopped in Wise County, Virginia, to tour the Powell River Project, an area hosting research and education programs designed to enhance environmental restoration and water-resource protection in coal mining areas.

Jordan Chittick, a sophomore biology and chemistry double major from Ruther Glen, said she “felt accomplished planting the various trees to restore biodiversity in our specific site,” but soon realized “there were many more sites that required the same treatment.”

The mountains and their communities have been “permanently altered by manufacturing and energy extraction industries, and we cannot go back in time to change their practices,” Close said. “Rather than throw our hands up and say, ‘well, nothing really can be done,’ we instead pack our bags for a few days, put our dibble bars in the ground and plant hundreds of trees to restore, patch by patch, the vast Appalachian hardwood forests that once populated the Appalachians.”

It’s not an experience students can gain in a classroom setting, the biology faculty member explained. “We have to go there.”

In doing so, “students come away with a better understanding of the geology, biological diversity and cultural richness of the area,” Close said. “We hope they carry this with them throughout the rest of their time here at Radford and beyond.”


Apr 6, 2018
Chad Osborne