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Tree planting in Weiser State Forest underscores Pa.’s abandoned mine land reclamation efforts
Volunteers, including Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) staff and DCNR Bureau of Forestry personnel kicked off a large tree-planting operation throughout Weiser State Forest on April 30. More than a dozen people planted around 1,500 seedlings on the day, with 4,000 seedlings being planted before the project has been completed.


Executive Director of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds John Dawes assists a volunteer plant a tree on reclaimed mine lands in Weiser State Forest.
"It was really a fulfilling day,” said PEC Executive Vice President Patrick Starr. “Not only did we plant trees together, we enjoyed working together to solve one of Pennsylvania’s most intractable pollution problems. I was so gratified that more than a dozen volunteers pitched in for the cause—even our bus driver decided to plant trees!”

A four-acre segment of the state forest in Columbia County that’s been affected by the remnants of mining activity was targeted by the volunteers in an effort to improve the area’s water quality and restore lost forest habitat. Pennsylvania has more miles of streams affected by mine land drainage than any other state, with more than 15,000 degraded acres needing to be reforested.

The volunteers, drawing from Columbia, Northumberland and Berks counties and also including members of the Shamokin Creek Restoration Alliance, spent the day planting seedlings such as sumac, scrub oak, pitch pine and aspens to restore a forest on a mine land site affecting tributaries of the Shamokin Creek. A forester from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement demonstrated how to plant the young trees.


Volunteers from three counties converge on the Weiser to plant trees that will improve water quality.

One of the volunteers, John Dawes, is the executive director of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, which has been working with a wide variety of environmental groups, government agencies, volunteer organizations and others to improve the health of watersheds and forests affected by past mining activity in Pennsylvania. While other causes of stream degradation pose risks to Pennsylvania’s watersheds, abandoned mine drainage actually is the largest threat to the state’s stream health.

Dawes has supervised small grants to over 350 environmental and watershed associations throughout the state since the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds was founded in 1994. The intent is to provide seed money to allow a local group to access agency funding through DCNR, DEP, the Office of Surface Mining, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This has resulted in over $159 m. in project cost. The majority of this small grants budget is for abandoned mine reclamation.


Young trees ready to be planted.

In 2014, Dawes received the ECHO Award from the U.S. Dept. Of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Named to signify the most common principles behind the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA)—Environment, Community, Humanity and Ownership—the award is given to recognize individuals for their contributions to support and strengthen SMCRA, the law designed to protect people and the environment from the adverse effects of coal mining while providing for the nation’s energy needs.

“The problem of historic abandoned mine lands is the worst environmental scar on the landscape of Pennsylvania,” said Dawes. “The planting of scarred mine lands is not rocket science. It is a matter of adding soil amendments and ripping the surface to allow trees to thrive—including the blight resistant American Chestnut trees which represent decades of selective breeding.

“Communities near these sites have depressed land and housing values in the 44 out of 67 counties affected by abandoned mine lands. Reclamation means jobs—truck hauling, heavy machinery deployment, tree planting, nursery propagation, etc. Philanthropy is willing to partner with the state and the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to get this job done!”

Pennsylvania has over 200,000 acres of abandoned mine lands. Improving the health of these areas is an important goal of DCNR and the Department of Environmental Protection. DEP’s Forestry Reclamation Approach (FRA) involves the planting of higher quality trees, minimum compaction of the reclaimed ground, the use of native as well as non-competitive ground covers and proper tree planting techniques.

On some plots—like the ones in Sproul State Forest where they’ve been doing AML reclamation projects since the early 1990s and have reclaimed around 100 acres—a mix of hardwoods and conifers are used. Species include oaks, white pine, red pine, spruce and aspen. DCNR is committed to offering technical assistance in reclamation projects on private lands throughout the state in addition to hosting tree plantings on state forest land.

“DCNR, through the Bureau of Forestry, has a deep history in taking spoiled lands—whether it was through over-harvesting of timber or unreclaimed mine lands—and returning them to productive forest lands,” said DCNR Deputy Secretary for Parks and Forestry John Norbeck. “In this case, we are working with our partner organizations to return the land to a healthy state and cleaning up the waterways.”


John Dawes and a volunteer plant one of over a thousand trees in Weiser State Forest.

This particular planting was a first for PEC as a partner in the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative and in partnership with DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry, DEP, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, and Green Forests Work. This planting and others in the coming months are funded by the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds.

For more information on programs, initiatives and special events, visit the PA Environmental Council website.


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May 11, 2016

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