By Ken Ward Jr.
Across Southern West Virginia, forests are being destroyed not only to feed new chipboard plants and sawmills, but to make way for strip mines.
Since the early 1980s, bigger and bigger strip mining machines have invaded the state.
Huge draglines, some standing 10 stories high, scoop up 100 yards of earth in one bite. Mining complexes are measured in the thousands of acres. They pump out far more coal with far fewer workers in much less time.
Technically, federal law requires coal operators to restore strip mined land to a condition that can support the uses it supported before mining, or to "higher or better uses."
Foresters warned decades ago that it would be difficult for forests to grow on strip-mined land. Hardwood forests take 80 or 100 years to grow. Strip mines turn soil and water systems upside down, making it even harder for a forest to regrow.
Environmentalists agreed with foresters. They worried that "higher or better" uses would allow forest land to be replaced with activities someone in industry or government decided would be better.
This year, these fears started to show up in government forest inventory studies.
A report issued in August by the West Virginia Division of Forestry found that:
- Between 1987 and 1995, nearly 250,000 acres of state timberland was lost to strip mining, farming, rights of way, and housing developments. This was the first decrease in state timberland acreage in more than 50 years.
- More than 110,000 of the timberland acres that disappeared, about 44 percent, were lost to strip mines. This conversion resulted in the loss of about 1.1 billion board feet of live trees.
- Current strip mine reclamation methods restore mined areas primarily to grass and vegetation, not trees or forests, resulting in a permanent conversion.
"It's just devastating," said Forestry Division Director Bill Maxey. "It's a significant draw down on the forest inventory and a loss in forest growth and wildlife habitat."
Ben Greene, president of the West Virginia Mining and Reclamation Association, said he believes Maxey is speaking too soon.
The 110,000-acre timberland loss figure appears to be simply a combination of acreage for all strip mine permits issued in West Virginia since 1987, Greene said.
"They made a basic assumption that when a permit is issued, it is immediately mined, and it immediately becomes barren, and of course that is not true," Greene said.
Most of the time, Greene said, coal operators hold permits for up to 10 years before they actually mine all the land covered in the permits.
"Over that 10-year period, you do disturb a large amount of acreage, but it's a progressive kind of thing," Greene said.
New, huge mountaintop removal mining jobs are making it more difficult to restore mined lands to forests, Greene said. But Greene said mining companies are learning more and more about how to do it.
Greene pointed to reclaimed mines in Tucker and McDowell County that the state Division of Environmental Protection showcased on its annual mine restoration tour earlier this year.
"Old Mother Nature seems to do a real fine job," Greene said. "She creeps in on the borders and you go back in 10 or 20 years and you can't get through.
"The early evidence is they are coming back and are going to do as well or better," Greene said. "It's all gone and it all comes back."
Cindy Rank, longtime leader of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, went on the DEP tour of the sites Greene praises. She was not impressed.
"They're not even attempting to recreate real forests," Rank said.
"It's rolling hills with plots of wildlife plantings with tree species that are supposed to be good for whatever game animals they want to put out," Rank said.
"It's not the same ecosystem as a forest," she said. "It doesn't have old trees and leaves that fall down and all the bugs and lichen and things that do their thing to create a forest.
"We may not be clearcutting the state of West Virginia, but we're turning the state upside down so the trees will never come back."
John Ailes, chief of mining and reclamation for the state Division of Environmental Protection, said his agency has not kept very good count of which mining sites are restored to forest lands and which are not.
"There's never been a great demand for that kind of information," Ailes said. DEP records do show that the mining permits issued so far in 1996 could result in a loss in forest lands.
Of the more than 13,500 acres to be strip-mined under those permits, 52 percent started out as forest. But only 35 percent would be restored to forest when the mining is done, DEP records show.
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