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By Aaron Farmer
For most, spring break conjures images of parties, shoreside getaways, and long drives to get home. But for 20 Radford University students, they will leave from campus on March 8 bound for the Robinson Forest in eastern Kentucky to give back to the community by planting trees at a mountaintop removal coal mining site.
“This is a chance for students to go out and plant a forest in hopes of taking back that land and turning it back into what it was before,” said Dr. Matthew Close, an assistant professor of biology at Radford University.
The three professors organizing and leading the trip – Close, Appalachian studies professor Theresa Burriss, and geospatial science professor Rick Roth – have partnered with the federal Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, the nonprofit Green Forests Work, and other university groups from across the nation to make the trip possible.
Before leaving for Kentucky, the students will hear insights from the professors on the policy, ecology, and culture surrounding the history of coal mining in the area.
The first day will be spent visiting the Star Fire Mine to see reclamation test plots planted in previous years. On March 9, the group will travel to an abandoned mining site to plant seedlings of their own – hardwood species like elderberry, dogwood, oak varieties, and even American chestnut seedlings.
Caroline Leggett, a senior majoring in interdisciplinary studies with minors in Appalachian studies and biology, recalled how it felt to see the barren landscape in 2014.
“To go through and destroy an environment like that… it was like a bomb had gone off or something,” said Leggett. “It was heartbreaking to understand and see what had been done.”
The analogy of “a bomb going off” is not far from what actually takes place – mountaintop removal mining uses explosives to clear away upper layers of soil and rock to expose the coal underneath.
But the politics surrounding coal mining in Kentucky are divided along the old, familiar lines of environment vs. economics.
While environmental groups and scientists warn of the irreparable damage done by mining practices, Kentucky’s coal industry directly employed almost 12,000 people and produced over 80 million tons of coal in 2013 – making it the third highest-producing state in the nation.
Close stressed the importance of proactive planting, explaining how methods of rehabilitating the mining sites – replacing the dirt and stone that was taken away, compacting it to reduce erosion, and re-planting grasses and vegetation – allows invasive species to take hold and makes it harder for native hardwoods to recolonize on their own.
“If you’re left with an inhospitable habitat, it’s not just inhospitable for plants; it affects all of the animals that rely on it, even the microbial communities, the bacteria, the fungi that lived there before,” said Close.
The trip does not fall under the usual leisurely spring break trip criteria – students are cautioned to wear hiking boots and clothing suited for physical labor in unpredictable weather conditions.
”My students give me grief about this, because whenever we go somewhere, it snows,” said Burriss with a laugh, recalling white-out blizzard conditions faced by the group in 2013.
But for students who take the trip, Close says the opportunity to help the forests reclaim the dilapidated land is worth it.
“They realize all that they have learned about means something. It’s more than just something you read in an article,” said Close. “You lived it. You experienced it.”
Leggett shared a similar viewpoint when remembering how rewarding and eye-opening the trip was for herself and the other students involved.
”There’s a difference when you just read about something, and then you go see it,” said Leggett.
“It was inspiring to see the people working on it, and to be a part of it,” she said.
After a day of planting, the group will visit Appalachian Sustainable Development in Abingdon, Virginia, an organization dedicated to promoting community growth with the well-being of the regional environment in mind.
Students interested in the trip should submit a one-page narrative and a resume to Dr. Burriss by email at email@example.com explaining why they would like to get involved. The leading professors can select only 20 students for the trip.