Monongahela National Forest: Restoring Strip Coal Mine Lands

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Fast facts
Project Status: 
Action
Project Dates : : 
06/01/2013
06/01/2017
Project Summary: 

The Lambert Run strip coal mine lands were mined in the 1970s-1980s. Reclamation required by law resulted in reshaping the mined areas to make them more stable, and planting mostly nonnative species for erosion control. The contemporary result is large areas of heavily compacted soil with low water infiltration, where the predominant cover is non-native aggressive grasses and conifer plantations (esp. red pine and Norway spruce). More than thirty years later, these legacy mine sites have remained in a condition termed "arrested succession", meaning that conditions are unsuitable for native species to establish, and the areas are stuck in non-native grasslands or plantations. In response, The Monongahela National Forest is implementing the Lambert Restoration Project. The objective is to establish and restore native species of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants to this area with a short term goal (5-20 years) of enhancing habitat for early successional species, and a long-term goal of spruce ecosystem restoration. The project is expected to improve watershed conditions, provide wildlife habitat, restore soil quality, and restore native red spruce-northern hardwood forests on Lambert Run and adjacent lands.

In addition to recovering from past disturbances, restoration efforts seek to restore ecosystem resilience and adaptability to natural disturbances and long-term climate change. Staff from the Monongahela National Forest used the Forest Adaptation Resources Workbook to describe how planned management actions enhance long-term resilience to climate change, as well as identify new adaptation tactics that can be considered for implementation.

Geographic area of project: 

Scale of Project: 
District/Sub-Forest
Collaborators: 
Monongahela National Forest
Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science
Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative
Green Forests Work
West Virginia Division of Natural Resources
USDA-NRCS Plant Materials Center
Canaan Valley Institute
Central Appalachians Red Spruce Restoration Initiative
The Nature Conservancy
Environmental Protection Agency (American Rivers Initiative and Brownsfield and Land Restoration Initiative)
Arbor Day Foundation
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection
Appalachian Stewardship Foundation
USDA Forest Service Joint Chiefs' Initiative
Description
Contributor(s): 
Patricia Butler, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science; Stephanie Connolly and Shane Jones, Monogahela National Forest
Project background and scope: 

The Lambert Restoration Project takes place on 2,667 acres encompassing the Lambert Run watershed and two small adjacent watersheds. In addition to the Lambert Run Strip coal mine, the project area contains approximately 275 acres of legacy coal mine lands (reclaimed according to surface mining laws in the 1970s). The project is located in Randolph County, West Virginia and is part of larger restoration project to restore a key red spruce corridor on the landscape. For this umbrella project, the Monongahela National Forest has collaborated with a number of partners and funders to achieve this work in Lambert Run and the larger Mower Tract. For a complete list of these partnerships, please see Page 15 of the Mower Tract Ecological Restoration Final Report. Most recently, internal Forest Service funding has contributed to this project through the Joint Chief’s Initiative.

Reclamation law required the mining company to return the strip mine back to its approximate original contour and to control soil erosion. The contemporary result is large areas of heavily compacted soil with poor water infiltration, where aggressive non-native seeded grasses, non-native conifer plantations, and sphagnum moss are among the few plants that can survive these conditions. For decades, these areas have remained in a condition termed "arrested succession", meaning native species are unable to establish as part of a normal successional process. In order to restore more natural ecosystem functions, the Monongahela National Forest and partners are taking actions to improve hydrology and soil quality, restore native tree and plant species, and provide wildlife habitat.

On a broader landscape scale, another restoration effort focused on red spruce restoration is underway. Red spruce forests exist in the highest elevations of the Allegheny Mountains as relicts from a cooler climate. These forests covered an estimated 1 million acres in West Virginia in the early 1900s. The combined effects of wildfire following logging, and decades of elevated acid deposition has reduced red spruce to approximately 50,000 acres, with red spruce currently rebounding successfully, especially where restoration efforts are made. In this context, the Lambert project is restoring part of a critical red spruce corridor that extends beyond MNF boundaries.

Click to see a Video on Spruce Restoration and Climate Change on the Monongahela

Climate change is expected to create additional challenges to the task of restoring ecological function in these areas, with challenges likely to intensify through the end of the century. The Monongahela National Forest teamed up with the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science to evaluate how planned management actions can enhance long-term resilience to climate change, as well as identify additional adaptation tactics that can be considered for implementation.

Prior to using the Forest Adaptation Resources Workbook to consider climate change in forest management, staff from the Monongahela National Forest contributed to the development of the Central Appalachians Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment (Butler et al. 2015), which provides information about a range of potential future climates and ecosystem responses. Information from the assessment describes important potential changes including:

  • A regional increase of roughly 2 to 8 °F in mean annual temperature.
  • Although models are less certain about the timing of precipitation changes in summer or fall, they agree on a potential decrease of up to 4 inches.
  • The timing and intensity of precipitation is expected to change, with fewer rain events overall, but more volume of rain in any single event. Especially in areas like Lambert with steep topography, intensifying rain events could increase erosion.
  • Forest impacts models that use projected future climate to identify changes in tree habitat and biomass have projected declines in locally-important species including red spruce, balsam fir, eastern hemlock, sugar maple, bigtooth aspen, and other native species.

These climate trends point to a future that is warmer and more variable, presenting greater stresses on boreal species like red spruce, balsam fir, and eastern hemlock. These projections were considered when evaluating management actions and developing adaptation options.

Project Process and Implementation: 

As a part of the Climate Change Response Framework, NIACS has developed a flexible process to help forest managers and landowners address climate change. This process helps forest managers to consider potential climate impacts and adaptation actions for a particular project with real-world management goals.

During a 2-day event in April 2014, NIACS led a discussion among the Monongahela National Forest staff involved in planning the Lambert Restoration Project. This team outlined the major goals of the project and considered how a range of broad-scale projected climate change scenarios might affect the Lambert project goals and objectives. NIACS shared information on general climate change trends and projections from the Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment mentioned above, and resource specialists from the Monongahela National Forest used their own local knowledge and expertise to consider how the broad-scale trends might manifest locally on the Lambert site. Then the team thought critically about how climate change might present both challenges and opportunities for the management goals, and brainstormed a wide range of adaptation tactics that can address expected climate impacts. A “menu” of adaptation actions from the Forest Adaptation Resources document helped the team narrow in on specific actions. Finally, the team discussed key monitoring items that would be helpful to determine if adaptation actions were effective.

A summary of the process from the Adaptation Workbook. The Monongahela National Forest used this process to incorporate climate change into their plans.

A summary of the process from the Adaptation Workbook. The Monongahela National Forest used this process to incorporate climate change into their plans.

Project Outcomes: 

Planned management objectives are focused on restoring site ecological functions related to soil and water, and restoring native tree, shrub, and herb species. Although climate impact models project severe declines for red spruce by the end of the century, this species is currently expanding on the landscape, and is a good candidate for planting native species. In the long term, promoting red spruce and northern hardwoods over a range of microclimates will provide opportunities for these species to move over the landscape to find new suitable habitat as conditions change. Additionally, re-establishing populations in optimal sites now may provide the best potential refugia sites (i.e., the coolest and wettest valleys or areas somewhat protected from the elements) as available habitat shrinks overall. But even on more exposed sites, if a mix of native species can be restored now, some will be able fill the niche as others decline, ultimately maintaining natural forest cover.

Management actions already planned included:

  • Deep-ripping soils to break up compaction and restore natural hydrologic flow through the soil
  • Decommissioning relict mining ponds and channels, or redirecting channels to aid in creation of wetlands and ephemeral ponds
  • Uprooting nonnative conifer plantations to reduce competition with planted seedlings. Uprooted trees will be left on site to serve as coarse woody material thereby returning organic matter back to the soil to help increase available water holding capacity. This coarse woody material should also facilitate natural regeneration by encouraging additional wildlife use (birds and small mammals) to aid in seed dispersal.
  • Planting a variety of red spruce and northern hardwood tree seedlings and herbaceous native plants to create an early successional native community in the short term, and put the area on a trajectory to eventually succeed into a red spruce-northern hardwood forest.
  • Decommissioning roads that are no longer needed in order to restore hydrologic function, restore soil quality, and reduce erosion caused by surface water runoff.

Adaptation tactics developed to help achieve the objectives in a changing climate included:

  • Planting a variety of native tree seedlings currently available from local nursery stock and working with partners to increase the variety of species that nurseries provide.
  • Retaining healthy and disease-resistant individuals as genetic legacies, to provide a seed source for the future, and to provide a food source for wildlife. Black cherry and American beech are currently less abundant than other hardwoods in the project area, and are projected to decline by the end of the century.
  • Evaluating road stream crossings and upgrading culverts to improve capacity for heavy precipitation events, and to provide or improve aquatic organism passage.

Many of the planned management actions increase the ability of red spruce and northern hardwoods to cope with future changes in climate by restarting natural succession, reconnecting forested landscapes, and providing a greater variety of habitable sites that can potentially serve as refugia. Incorporating information on expected climate change impacts helped identify specific actions to address climate-related challenges and promote long-term sustainability. Implementation of planned management actions in the Lambert South project area began in 2014, and will continue over the next few years.

Climate Informed Restoration in the Appalachians from NIACS on Vimeo.

Project challenges and lessons learned: 

The Lambert Run South Restoration Project served as a pilot adaptation project on the Monongahela National Forest, where staff applied the Adaptation Workbook to this project after it had completed the NEPA process, including the period for public comments. Staff were therefore required to work within the NEPA-specified suite of planned management actions. The Adaptation Workbook was used to record the benefits of planned actions to support climate adaptation, as well as identify new actions that could create even more benefits. The Monongahela NF has since applied the Adaptation Workbook to other vegetation management projects that are just beginning the NEPA process. Earlier application of the Adaptation Workbook has identified key climate change considerations that influence all phases of the NEPA process, including proposed actions.

Another key challenge is the location of the project area within a complex landscape of high relief and rapid elevation changes in the Allegheny Mountains. The resolution of downscaled climate models and forest impact models are too coarse to account for the variety of microclimates and site conditions at finer scales. The models are useful for projecting responses in average conditions (i.e., mid-elevation), and Forest Staff have less confidence in how tree species will respond above and below the average conditions (i.e., valley bottoms and mountain tops). Finer resolution models would help forest managers better understand these complex areas.

Photos and Video
Additional Resources
References: 

Butler, P., Iverson, L., Thompson III, F., Brandt, L., Handler, S., Janowiak, M. et al. 2015 Forest ecosystem vulnerability assessment and synthesis: a report from the Central Appalachians Climate Change Response Framework Project Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-146, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station, Newtown Square, PA.

Swanston, Chris; Janowiak, Maria, eds. 2012. Forest adaptation resources: Climate change tools and approaches for land managers. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-87. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station.121 p.