Do timber companies need flat land in order to make money cutting down trees? Should West Virginia coal operators be able to leave mountaintop removal mine sites leveled for the loggers?
The U.S. Office of Surface Mining can't seem to decide.
On one hand, OSM said clearly that commercial timbering does not require flat land. On the other hand, the agency ruled that West Virginia regulators can allow mountaintop removal mines to flatten land if the flat land is needed for future logging.
Mountaintop removal mining is supposed to be permitted only if coal companies propose specific plans to develop the land they flatten.
Generally, the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act requires all strip mines to be reclaimed to their approximate original contour. Mine operators can ignore that, and flatten out the land, if they propose to build factories, schools or public facilities on mined land.
Under federal law, mountaintop removal is only allowed if permits contain development plans for one of five post-mining land uses: Industrial, commercial, agricultural, residential or public facilities.
But across Southern West Virginia, giant mountaintop removal mines are turning tens of thousands of acres of rugged hills and hollows into flat pastures or rolling hayfields.
As the controversy grows over the future of those mined lands, more mountaintop removal mine operators are turning to another questionable post-mining land use: Commercial woodlands.
More than 70 mountaintop removal permits issued by the state since 1970 included only three that proposed commercial woodlands as their post-mining land use. Those three permits covered a total of 1,487 acres, or 4 percent of the total area of all the permits reviewed.
Another 18 of those permits proposed a post-mining land use of "forest land," a land use that federal rules don't allow for mountaintop removal mines. Those 18 permits covered a total of more than 8,300 acres, or 13 square miles.
As of July 1, there were 11 mountaintop removal permits pending before the state Division of Environmental Protection's Office of Mining and Reclamation.
Two of those permits proposed commercial woodlands as a post-mining land use.
Those two permits covered a total of 3,334 acres, or one-fifth of the area covered by all 11 pending permits. One pending permit, covering about 1,200 acres, proposes a post-mining land use of forest land, according to DEP records.
When OSM wrote its original regulations for the federal strip mining law in 1979, the agency was asked by industry officials to allow logging - or silviculture, which is the science of growing trees as a commercial crop - as a mountaintop removal post-mining land use.
"Silviculture can be accomplished on a wide range of slopes and does not require flat or rolling terrain," OSM said in a March 1979 Federal Register notice.
About 18 months later, in October 1980, West Virginia regulators petitioned OSM to have commercial woodland added to the list of post-mining land uses allowed for the state's mountaintop removal mining operations.
Again, OSM refused, citing its earlier decision on silviculture.