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At Old Coal Mines, the American Chestnut Tries for a Comeback

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ohio — Michael French trudged through a thicket of prickly bramble, unfazed by the branches he needed to swat away occasionally with a purpose to arrive at a quiet spot of hilly land that was once mined for coal. Now, nonetheless, it’s patched with flowering goldenrods and long yellow-green grasses and dotted with tree saplings.

The sight, he acknowledged, would appear unimpressive to most. Yet it is likely to be Mr. French’s most prized accomplishment. To him, the young trees symbolize what might be a critical comeback for a number of the country’s vanishing forests, and for one tree particularly, the American chestnut.

“I don’t see it how most individuals see it,” he said. “I have a look at this and I see the way it’s going to be in 80 to 100 years.”

By then, Mr. French envisions that the chestnut, a beloved tree nearly worn out a century ago by a blight-causing fungus, can be amongst people who make up an expansive forest of native trees and plants.

Billions of chestnuts once dominated Appalachia, with Americans over many generations counting on their hardy trunks for log cabins, floor panels and telephone poles. Families would store the trees’ small, brown nuts in attics to eat in the course of the holiday season.

Now, Mr. French and his colleagues at Green Forests Work, a nonprofit group, hope to help the decades-long effort to revive the American chestnut by bringing the trees back onto Appalachia’s former coal mines. A long time of mining, which have contributed to global warming, also left behind dry, acidic and hardened earth that made it difficult to grow much beyond nonnative herbaceous plants and grasses.

As coal continues to say no and lots of the remaining mines shut down for good, foresters say that restoring mining sites is a chance to prove that something productive will be fabricated from lands which have been degraded by many years of extractive activity, particularly at a moment when trees are increasingly valued for his or her climate advantages. Forests can capture planet-warming emissions, create protected harbor for endangered wildlife species and make ecosystems more resilient to extreme weather events like flooding.

The chestnut is a very good fit for this effort, researchers say, since the tree’s historical range overlaps “almost perfectly” with the terrain covered by former coal mines that stretched across parts of eastern Kentucky and Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

One other advantage of restoring mining sites this manner is that chestnut trees prefer barely acidic growth material, they usually grow best in sandy and well-drained soil that isn’t too wet, conditions which can be mostly consistent with previously mined land, said Carolyn Keiffer, a plant ecologist at Miami University in Ohio.

Since 2009, Green Forests Work has helped plant greater than five million native trees, including tens of 1000’s of chestnuts, across 9,400 acres of mined lands. Over that point, the group has collected supporters, including U.S. Forest Service rangers attempting to bring back the red spruce onto national forests in West Virginia, and bourbon firms involved in the sustainability of white oak trees which can be utilized in barrels to store and age whiskey.

“We, humans, brought within the nonnative fungus that killed the tree,” Dr. Keiffer said, referring to the parasitic fungus that was unintentionally introduced to North America within the late 1800s on imported Japanese chestnuts.

After that, mining the land made it nearly unimaginable for it to develop naturally back into the forest it once was, she said. “Possibly we will be those to bring the trees back.”

That calling has at all times motivated Thomas Brannon, at the same time as a 3rd grader within the Nineteen Forties planting trees along with his siblings on his family’s land in eastern Ohio, the property that Mr. French visited in August.

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“If I could make that 230 acres look higher, then that’s enough for me,” Mr. Brannon said.

His grandparents sold mining rights to parts of the property in 1952, and nearly 4 many years of coal mining followed.

In 1977, the federal government passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, requiring mining firms to return land to the overall shape it had before the mining activity.

In consequence, mining firms would backfill excavated land, packing rock material tightly against the hillside so it wouldn’t cause landslides, said Scott Eggerud, a forester with the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the agency that enforces the mining law. To forestall erosion, mining firms would plant aggressive, mostly nonnative grasses that would tolerate the heavily compacted soil.

From the Eighties to the early 2000s, an estimated a million acres of previously forested area within the Appalachia were reclaimed this manner as “legacy” mined lands.

In theory, compacting land and greening it up quickly was a very good idea, when it comes to stopping erosion and water contamination, said Sara Fitzsimmons, chief conservation officer at The American Chestnut Foundation. Nevertheless it made re-establishing forests difficult.

Tree planters described the early efforts to reforest those legacy mined lands as “planting trees in a car parking zone.”

When Green Forests Work arrived on the Brannon property in 2013, they focused on undoing a number of the damage done to the land, bringing in bulldozers with giant ripping shanks that dig three to 4 feet deep into the soil, loosening up the dirt and pulling up rocks.

By springtime, the group had planted upward of 20,000 seedlings, a mixture of 20 different native tree species including the American chestnut, the Virginia pine and quite a lot of oaks.

In addition they planted 625 chestnuts in a one-acre space they called a progeny test to judge the health of hybridized chestnut trees — fifteen-sixteenths American chestnut and one-sixteenth Chinese chestnut — that were crossbred by scientists at The American Chestnut Foundation, a nonprofit group formed within the Eighties.

The Chinese chestnuts had co-evolved with the fungus, making them proof against the blight’s effects. The scientists then infected the part-American, part-Chinese chestnuts with the fungus to select those that survived. Then, they repeated that process over several generations.

“We find yourself with a chestnut that appears more like an American chestnut but retains a number of the disease resistance from Chinese chestnuts,” said Jared Westbrook, director of science at the muse.

The crossbreeding approach to growing blight-resistant chestnut trees proved more complicated than initially expected. Although those efforts still proceed, a research team on the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry has begun genetically engineering the trees by taking a fungus-fighting gene from wheat and transferring it into American chestnut embryos.

Most of the chestnuts growing within the progeny test now reach high above Mr. French’s head. When he inspected them in August, he’d identified a number of black locust trees that had made their home next to the chestnuts on their very own — an exciting development signaling that nature is doing its work, Mr. French said.

The black locust tree can absorb atmospheric nitrogen and convert it to a kind more accessible to plants. The tree’s leaves fall off and break down quickly, increase topsoil. And as a fast-growing but short-lived tree, it shades other saplings of their earlier years, encouraging them to grow straight and tall as they compete for light.

“We call it nature’s scab,” Mr. French said. “It’s there for a bit while, and helps heal the injuries, after which it falls off.”

Climate change has complicated efforts to bring back tree species in other ways. As temperatures warm, the optimal range for the chestnut tree, and various other tree species, can be shifting northward into the northern United States and Canada, Dr. Westbrook said. Some wildlife managers have begun experiments to deliberately relocate certain tree species northward in a controversial process called assisted migration.

For the reason that chestnuts were worn out, and any remaining trees only grow to a number of years old before they die off from the blight, they’ve not had a likelihood to breed and adapt to climate change as other species have, Mr. Westbrook said. “They’re essentially 50 to 100 years behind every tree that didn’t have the disease,” he said.

Mine reforestation efforts have focused on planting quite a lot of native tree species, but chestnuts have at all times been a very good way into the difficult conversation of encouraging the industry to vary its standard practices.

“While you start talking to people in regards to the chestnut tree, they get really excited,” Mr. French said.

Reforestation, though, is about greater than anybody species. It’s essential to take a “holistic, ecosystem approach,” said Christopher Barton, a forest hydrology professor on the University of Kentucky and president of Green Forests Work.

At some sites, for instance, tree planters don’t just plant trees, in addition they construct wetlands. The person-made wetlands at Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains appear like a mosaic of small pools, with tangled branches of downed trees jutting out of the water at spots, left there intentionally to function a protected place for amphibians to connect their eggs, said Anna Maria Branduzzi, the reforestation coordinator at Green Forests Work.

The nonprofit group, along with the U.S. Forest Service, has been working to revive the red spruce ecosystem on 2,500 acres of land in Monongahela that had been mined for coal.

Historically, the world would have been wet enough that peat, a spongy material formed of partially decayed organic matter that may function a vital carbon sink, would accumulate, Dr. Barton said.

After mining reclamation, the world lost its moisture, together with its trees.

“The most important limiting factor to tree growth is soil moisture,” said Shane Jones, an ecosystem staff officer for the Forest Service. “We’re attempting to put the sponge back on the mountain,” he said, grabbing a fistful of dirt and wringing out a trickle of water.

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