Restoration Appalachia: Coal Mines to Spruce Forests


West virginia appalachia restoration red spruce lambert's strip gaudineer's knob

Cheat Mountain overlooks the highest-altitude stream in the east.  Along its ridge lies a Civil War fort, where soldiers recalled their months here as the "severest of the war" due to weather.[1]  The first snowfall of 1861 was mid-August; Horses froze in September.  This cold, wet region supports red spruce (picea rubens), common in Canada, unusual for West Virginia.  A red spruce forest this far south creates a unique ecosystem—habitat to endangered species like the West Virginia flying squirrel and the Cheat Mountain salamander—and also increases the range diversity and therefore odds of survival for red spruce itself, a species likely to suffer "severe declines" in distribution by 2200 due to climate change.[2]  Concerns for local ecosystem health add further reasons to restore the red spruce, especially where they've been destroyed by past logging and mining practices, like here at Cheat Mountain.

West virginia appalachia restoration red spruce lambert's strip

Destructive History, "Arrested" Succession
No longer sporting its "pelt of shaggy spruce and fir" recalled by Union soldiers, the ecosystems around Cheat Mountain have since been destroyed by commercial interests.
  • Clearcut logging began in the 1890's.  By 1920 the boomtowns had vanished, along with the region's forests.
  • Coal mining further degraded the landscape during the 1960's and 70's.  The method that gave Lambert's Strip (part of Cheat Mountain) its name, strip mining removes wide areas of vegetation, soil and upper layers of rock to access the coal seam below.  The reclamation laws of the time only required the general hill shape be restored (pushing removed overburden back into the mined pits) and stabilized (planting whatever will grow, in this case invasive grasses and Norway spruce).
coal mining West virginia appalachia restoration red spruce lambert's strip

Above, the black gold that attracted miners.  Below left, loggers cut a mature red spruce (photo courtesy of USFS interpretive sign).  Below right, the resulting terrain: rocky, infertile ground with invasive grasses and Norway spruce.

logging West virginia appalachia restoration red spruce lambert's stripWest virginia appalachia restoration red spruce lambert's strip

With the original soil structure destroyed, and without native plants rebuilding it, the hillsides continued to degrade.  Mats of Norway spruce needles left the ground impermeable; rainwater would rush into streams rather than absorb into the groung.  This washed away soil, polluted Shavers fork with sediment, and left little moisture for plant growth.  Slopes remained rocky and barren.  Ecological succession became "arrested," meaning later-stage species were unable to establish.  Without human intervention red spruce would likely never return.

West virginia appalachia restoration red spruce lambert's strip
Left: old monoculture of Norway spruce
Right: beginnings of restored Red spruce forest

Restoration
After the miners left, the United States Forest Service (USFS) purchased the land in the 1980's as part of the 40,375 acre Mower Tract acquisition, now part of Monongahela National Forest.[3]  The restoration work began in 2012 as a collaboration between the USFS, Appalachian Heritage Foundation and the Canaan Valley Institute.  The work focused on restoring the red spruce ecosystem.  The goals were to:
  • increase biodiversity
  • improve water quality in Shavers Fork 
  • improve sequestration of greenhouse gasses
  • provide higher quality timber
  • provide habitat for the West Virginia flying squirrel, snowshoe hare, brook trout and the federally threatened Cheat Mountain salamander.[4]

West virginia appalachia restoration red spruce sapling lambert's strip

The restoration process involved:
  • removing Norway spruce and pushing them into windrows.
  • ripping the soil, with 3-foot tines attached to D-9 bulldozers, to loosen the soil for root growth and water infiltration.
  • digging a drainage channel on contour to help catch and infiltrate rainwater.
  • spreading mulch to help prevent erosion and eventually decompose into soil.
  • planting red spruce saplings, 15,000 throughout the 1,000 acre reforestation site, as well as cherry, magnolia, sumac and aspen saplings.

windrow West virginia appalachia restoration red spruce lambert's strip

Above, a windrow catches organic matter and shelters young plants like cherry trees and raspberry bushes.  Their seeds were likely dropped by birds perching in the windrows.  Below, a red spruce saplings grows along the mounds ripped by the dozer.  The mounds help catch and infiltrate rainwater. 

West virginia appalachia restoration red spruce lambert's strip

aspen West virginia appalachia restoration red spruce lambert's strip

salamander West virginia appalachia restoration red spruce lambert's strip

Gaudineer's Knob West virginia appalachia restoration red spruce lambert's strip

Below, this forest known as "Virgin Spruce" was never logged due to a boundary error.  Above, a regrowth spruce forest atop Gaudineer's Knob.

virgin red  spruce forest West virginia appalachia monongahela national forest Virgin red Spruce forest West virginia appalachia monongahela national forest

Below, decommissioned roads are another needed effort in ecosystem restoration.  Decommissioning marks the end of their erosive effects, and the end of access for logging trucks.

West virginia appalachia restoration red spruce lambert's strip

References
[1] Quotes from interpretive signs at Cheat Mountain Fort, by USFS and Appalachians Forest Heritage
[2] "Monongahela National Forest: Lambert Restoration Project," Climate Change Response Framework [link]
[3] "Monongahela National Forest: Restoring Strip Coal Mine Lands," USFS [link]
[4] "CVI and USFS Restore Native Forests on Cheat Mountain," Canaan Valley Institute [link]

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