Green Forest Works for Appalachia: A Win-Win-Win for Jobs, Forests, and Birds

10/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In a June 2009 entry to the Huffington Post, Jeff Biggers listed ten reasons why President Obama, CEQ chief Nancy Sutley, and EPA head Lisa Jackson must visit Appalachia and launch a war for green jobs. If this Administration truly wants to win the hearts and minds of the region's residents, environmentalists, and green economists in Appalachia, they would do well to take a close look at a proposal called Green Forest Works for Appalachia.

The Appalachian region is a land of contrasts, abounding with natural resources, yet troubled by poverty and slow economic growth. Appalachian forests support some of the highest biological diversity in the world's temperate region, including a rich variety of migratory songbirds, but extraction of the area's abundant coal reserves has dramatically altered the landscape. With the Green Forest Works for Appalachia program, the Obama Administration now has an opportunity to address economic, environmental, and ecological challenges simultaneously.

Since passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977, more than 1.2 million acres of Appalachian forest have been impacted by surface mining. Where mature native forest once stood, compacted soils and mostly non-native, aggressive grasses and shrubs now remain, left behind by coal operators in fulfillment of reclamation requirements. Reclamation of mined lands since 1977 has improved soil stability, but the impacts to Appalachia's diverse forests and species of wildlife that depend on intact forests have been dramatic.

Thanks to the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI), a cooperative effort among state, federal, and non-profit entities and universities of the Appalachian region, the bold and innovative Green Forest Works for Appalachia program is being put forward to employ thousands of local residents of rural coalfield communities in re-establishing high quality, diverse forests on these formerly mined lands.

A Lasting Economic Return

Despite its wealth of natural resources, Appalachia has offered its residents little in the way of economic opportunity. Unemployment now averages 9.4% for the eight main coal states in Appalachia (Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 2009, www.bls.gov/web/laumstrk.htm). Coal mining and the forest products industry provide some of the few opportunities for rural employment in the region, but historically, both have come at a high cost to the environment.

Accounts of Appalachia's near-complete removal of its expansive forests in the late 1800s and early 1900s are well-documented. However, the forest products industry has made tremendous strides towards economic and environmental sustainability in recent decades, allowing it to remain a viable enterprise in rural Appalachia for years to come.

In contrast, recent analyses have shown coal jobs to be waning as a result of falling coal prices and increased mechanization. Ultimately, this non-renewable resource will become too costly to extract, process, and "clean" to remain profitable, and what job opportunities exist today will dwindle further.

Mining continues to contribute to the deterioration of watersheds and water quality, disfigurement of the landscape, and loss of potentially productive and diverse hardwood forests. Since enforcement of SMCRA began in 1978, until recently (when new forest reclamation techniques emerged from ARRI), nearly all existing reclaimed lands have severely compacted soils, making them incapable of growing diverse forests without intervention-- possibly for centuries. Remediation of the compacted soils through reforestation to combat aggressive vegetation on these formerly mined lands is the focus of Green Forest Works.

The Green Forest Works proposal would employ more than 2,000 local residents to plant more than 125 million trees on approximately 175,000 acres of formerly mined lands by 2014. Beyond the creation of those initial jobs, this initiative would provide a renewable, sustainable, multi-use resource that will create long-term economic opportunities while enhancing the local and global environment through the restoration of diverse hardwood forests.

A Significant Environmental Benefit

Appalachian forests provide ecosystem services of tangible value to local communities, the nation, and the world. For example, forested landscapes create natural buffers to watersheds that are significant in both maintaining clean water supplies to Appalachian communities fed by their headwater streams, and in regulating river flows to prevent the extremes of both flooding and the drying up of river beds.

The Appalachian forests are also a major source of carbon sequestration in the battle against global warming, and home to globally significant numbers of declining, rare, threatened, and endangered fish, mussels, salamanders, mammals, and birds. Many of these species, such as the Cerulean Warbler, require large expanses of forest to thrive.

The rehabilitation of formerly mined lands through the Green Forest Works proposal would address environmental issues such as watershed protection, forest fragmentation, and carbon sequestration, while improving landscape aesthetics to enhance the capacity of communities in coal-mined areas to serve as tourist destinations, and to support tourism-related businesses and jobs. Additionally, ARRI's techniques for restoring formerly mined lands and reclaiming current and future mines are "transferable" globally; the species planted in Wyoming or Illinois, or even China or Australia would change, but the techniques would essentially be the same. This program can serve as a global example, with potentially staggering environmental benefits.

What's Good for Birds is Good for Appalachia

American Bird Conservancy applauds the Green Forest Works proposal for its abundant potential benefits to our nation's birds, green jobs, and focus on communities in Appalachia. Restoration of native deciduous forest will provide declining songbirds such as the Cerulean Warbler (whose population has fallen by 70 percent in the last 40 years) with increased breeding, foraging, and migratory stopover habitat. Reforestation will also help reduce the impacts of the Brown-headed Cowbird, a nest parasite that has thrived in the wake of forest fragmentation caused by mining activities. Stable or increasing populations of native bird species will also help maintain overall health of the forest ecosystem: many species disperse seeds of native trees, others help control forest pests, and all are important components of a complex food web.

Birds are sensitive indicators of general environmental health--they can serve as canaries in our coal mines long after those mines have been reclaimed. Bird declines across Appalachia reflect a broader environmental problem, and demonstrate the need to restore healthy forests and watersheds for the benefit of all of the region's biodiversity and its human residents.

Birds also provide tremendous direct economic benefit to local communities. A recent study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis), revealed that birds are a $36 billion dollar-per-year national industry, generating state tax revenue from the purchase of birding equipment, and boosting local economies through birding tourism. Appalachia's natural beauty and the watchable wildlife opportunities it affords will only be enhanced by the Green Forest Works proposal.

Giving Back to Appalachia's Local Communities

People have been in search of jobs, dignity, and a bountiful land along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains from colonial days to the present. The discussion of exactly where they can find those treasures has not been limited to the realm of social scientists, economists, and politicians. For decades, noted artists, musicians, poets, and writers have contributed creative thoughts, opinions, and ideas to the search. Harry Caudill, Wendell Berry, Silas House, and many other noted writers have framed their work as urgent appeals to the American conscience on behalf of the land and people of Appalachia. Erik Reece, author of "Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness", wrote an Op-Ed for The New York Times on May 5, 2007, in which he said: "We need a New Deal for Appalachia that would expand the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, or create a similar program, to finally return some of the region's lost wealth in the form of jobs and trees, rebuilt topsoil, and resuscitated communities."

Waning job prospects in the mining industry, combined with tremendous interest in restoring Appalachia's majestic native forests, will allow this program to succeed. In five years, the Green Forest Works for Appalachia program will provide secure, good paying jobs for thousands of Appalachian citizens, and jump-start the reforestation process on approximately 15 percent of the formerly mined lands in the region. This is an opportunity for us to give something back to Appalachia!

An army of outsiders has gone to Appalachia in the past to try to understand and solve the region's problems without much success. The Green Forest Works proposal can triumph because it was designed by smart Appalachians for their own region and their own people. It presents the Obama Administration with a wonderful opportunity to give the people of Appalachia a chance to address their environmental and economic problems in their own way in a win-win-win scenario for jobs, ecosystems, and birds.