Strip Mine Reforestation with The Nature Conservancy: Part 1

Today I went on an introductory tour of the Flint Gap reforestation project* that The Nature Conservancy has started on an old strip mined site. Real strip mine reclamation is famously difficult, mostly because of the complete devastation that the mining companies leave behind. Often, the companies do nothing more than pile the mine spoils on the land and then plant it with (often exotic) grasses. The Nature Conservancy is trying to study and eventually promote better reclamation practices than that, and the project we saw is a pilot in that effort.

Surface mine spoils make really bad soil. The only things that can grow on mine spoils are agressive grasses and invasive shrubs that keep anything else from growing and freeze the ecosystem, keeping from developing naturally into a forest. They're basically an extremely rough and compacted gravel, with bits of clay, dirt, sand, and the occasional enormous boulder. They are also not laid down in any particularly useful pattern, which means that things like nutrients and soil pH are really high or really low depending on where you are.

The Conservancy used a really badass machine called a "Masticator" to chop down and mulch all the invasive plants in one step. To try to fix the compaction problems, they went in with what's called a "Deep Tiller" or "Deep Ripper" and opened up the soil enough to allow tree roots to get a foothold. They then fertilized and limed the whole site, trying to even out the differences in nutrition and acidity.

After all that, they planted a few hundred native trees that are good for timber, and a smaller amount of "wildlife" trees. The trees are surviving, but they aren't growing as much as they normally would, because of the soil and because the invasive grasses grew back and are shading them out. The Nature Conservancy threw around the idea of herbiciding the grasses from the air (before planting trees), but decided that it would be too dangerous to the ecosystems downstream. Fire is out of the question too, since the area still has coal seams and natural gas deposits that might explode, or maybe just burn for a few hundred years. So now they're stuck spot spraying herbicides around individual trees, which you can imagine is a time consuming process.

So what's my involvement? I'm gonna help these folks by GPSing the sites. Preety easy work, just walk around the perimeter of the planted land and push a button every once in a while. Wish me luck!

Brad and Teresa from the Nature Conservancy on the site, overlooking the some of the land they're trying to save.

Brad pointing at something really important and relevant.

* If you want the full scoop on this project, check out TNC's report here:

A little more horse logging before I go

Short post today, folks. I went horse logging with Chad again today, and decided to ask him why he became a horse logger. We were on our way up the mountain so the video is a bit shaky and the chains are loud, but its still pure green gold.

I'm still discovering the way my camera works, and I did not realize the microphone was directional. At around 1:42, as I'm turning the camera towards the horses, Chad mentions the "Dignity Dividend" as one of the reasons for his work. I'll try to pay attention to the mic direction from now on!

Peace and Plants


Farming your Woodlot

Today was a great day.

Over the last month and a half, I've been setting u two workshops on forest farming, one on ginseng and other woodlot herbs, the other on growing Shiitake mushrooms. I met with farmers, learned about mushrooms with Kirsty, and started trying to figure out who I could get to do a talk.

It just so happened that Tom (my office neighbor at ASD) was in the process of arranging a horticulture conference right here in town! From my previous conversations with farmers, it was clear that a lot of them had forestland that they weren't sure what to do with. A horticultural conference, then, would be a great place to reach people who were already growing stuff and had forested land.

After all that preparation, I was really nervous about how today was going to go. I arrived at the Appalachian Regional Horticultural Conference after spending some quality time with a copier and a stapler.

I sat through a really slow presentation and a really fast presentation, and then it was time for lunch. Tom put me in charge of the "Specialty Crops" room. The first presentation (by Tom's wife, Deni) was to begin after lunch. I ate lunch with a really interesting and inquisitive ex-Amish fellow who had moved away from Pennsylvania because it was too touristy and developed.

After lunch, I helped Deni set up her cut flower growing presentation and hustled in and out of the room while she talked, making extra copies of handouts, turning up the heat, and generally wondering when the heck my ginseng guy, Jim, was going to show up.

At the end of Deni's talk he finally did show up, and proceeded to give a charismatic presentation to a packed (but small) room. Among the main points he made about growing ginseng and other herbs were to get your soil tested, which he said maybe 10 times, and to "keep it natural" by which he meant keeping costs down by doing as little as possible. With ginseng, doing the minimal effort of simply seeding and waiting for nature to take its course not only increases your profit margins, it makes the ginseng root more gnarled and therefore more valuable. You can download a copy of his presentation (which, it should be noted, is 17 MB) here.

Next up was Kirsty's talk on Growing Shiitake Mushrooms. Despite her normally confident attitude, Kirsty was extremely nervous about her talk (while we were organizing it, she kept telling me she wasn't an expert and tried to back out of it more than once). No matter, despite her nervous voice and British accent she gave an informative talk to a rapt audience. Her presentation was full of practical advice, which is just what I was looking for when I began organizing the workshop. She brought in a couple of her logs, and used them to show that you can tell when your log's been colonized by looking for a white ring at the end of the log. Her presentation (minus the log demonstration) can be downloaded here.

I was so interested in both of the talks that I neglected to take any pictures! A big part of why I set them up in the first place was that I wanted to attend them myself, and doing anything but listening never crossed my mind.

The best part of the day was the people who attended these talks. Most of the people came to both, since they were of a similar theme. They payed attention, asked questions, and gave me their email addresses for follow up. They owned "woodlots" and farmed their cleared land, and some truly seemed likely to start farming their woodlots (rather than clearing them) as a result of the talks. If I could do this kind of work on a regular basis, I would not only be making a difference, I would be a happy man.


Shiitake Mushroom Logging

I went back to Big Stone Gap today to help Kirsty get logs for her mushrooms. Usually she scopes out commercial logging jobs and tries to get branches and tree top wood, since the size of wood used in Shitake Mushroom farming is just smaller than what the loggers can use.

Today, however, we arrived at a man's property which had been "High Graded." High grading is when a logger takes only the biggest and the best trees and leaves a stand of small, crooked trees behind. Its a problem common not just in forestry, but in fisheries and hunting as well. My dad, an oyster farmer, explains it best:
"Imagine a country in which every year, we took the tallest, strongest, smartest men and sent them off to die at war. After even just a few years, the men left behind would be a bunch of short, fat, dumb guys."
This problem happens in forests when we take the most valuable trees, in fisheries when we take the biggest fish, and in hunting when we shoot the strong buck with the head full of horns. The problem is that evolution is working against us in this case: by removing the individuals we want from a population, we are selecting for those traits we don't want. Shoot the biggest buck, and the deer get smaller and weaker each year. Fish the biggest fish, and you end up with a bunch of guppies. Take the biggest trees, and the forest responds by providing less and less growth with each cut.

The man whose property we were at was right mad about the way the logger had behaved. He had been promised a clear cut, a hillside where he could raise a few cows or sheep. I'm torn as to whether this would be better or worse, but looking at the devastation around us makes me lean towards better. When Kirsty asked him if she could cut down a few of the smaller trees, he was happy to let us do so. I asked Kirsty to explain how she chooses her mushroom logs:

The day started out just great, then took a turn for the worse when I backed Kirsty's truck into a tree, with the tailgate down and the window to the bed cover open. The tree made a rather large dent in both, and I walked over to Kirsty (who was sawing and oblivious) to explain. What happened next shocked and amazed me. Had our roles been reversed, I would have been really pissed off, probably yelled for a bit, and demanded that I be paid for the damage.

Kirsty did none of these things.

She simply said "Andon, Andon, Andon," walked over to asses the damage, and within 5 minutes was acting like nothing had happened. She even tried to stop me from paying! Needless to say, I was humbled by her calm, and I hope I can emulate it the next time someone wrongs me in a similar way.


Horse Logging! Stories and video

So after my interesting journey, Chad and his two loggers arrived with their four horses. One of the loggers is Chad's brother, Dylan, who has been horse logging since middle school. The other is Bob, who is one of those people that confirms stereotypes one minute and rips them apart the next.

The first thing that struck me was the size of the horses. I'm a tall guy, and I could not even see over their backs! The Suffolk breed is truly made to work, and they seem to want to work too, as Chad explained while one of his horses lowered its head to make it easier for him to put on the harness. Once I got over that, the second thing that struck me is the environmental commitment of the crew. You might expect loggers, even environmentally conscious loggers, to care for the forest only insofar as it gave them a marketing opportunity. This was definitely not the case here.

Throughout the day, I experienced example after example of this knowledge and commitment, more than I can recount here. Chad expertly avoided taking down any more trees than he needed to. At one point I suggested we cut down a small tree that was in the way of a one of the logs we were pulling out, and he decided to try to get around it. The log got stuck and we had to take down the tree in the end, but the fact that I was the one arguing to cut down a tree and he was arguing against says a lot about the way he operates his business. When I first met Chad, he told me that he considers himself an "active-ist," someone who's out there "doing the work, practicing good forestry" rather than just talking about it.

When I first arrived, I assumed Dylan, who is my age, was the trainee, and Bob, who is middle aged, was an experienced horse logger. How wrong I was. As I said, Dylan has been out in the woods with his older brother since he was a teen. Bob had only been on the job for a few weeks, but had been a conventional logger for many years. The interactions between the two of them were interesting environmentally as well as socially. In addition to teaching Bob things like rigging cable and commanding the horses, Dylan continually practiced his older brother's "Active-ism" by picking up Bob's mountain dew bottles and scolding him for leaving them on the ground.

This is where things get interesting. Rather than get annoyed or pissed off at having some hippie boss kid telling him what to do, I think Bob was really trying to learn these good environmental habits. When I asked him later if he liked his new job, Bob told me, in his thick Appalachian cockney, "This here's more environmental." He also talked about the silence. He laughed at how Chad put his earmuffs on whenever he had to use a chainsaw, and told me about how loud conventional logging jobs are, with multiple giant machines working at once.

Though I had to endure plenty of chiding from Dylan "You're gonna have plenty of footage..." I did in fact manage to get enough video clips to put together a little taste of my day in the woods. Its a bit slow paced, but hey, so are most things that are worthwhile. Check it out below:

Horse Logging! A country drive

Driving away from Abingdon, VA on Alt. 58, the first thing you lose is your sense of distance. Even though I've driven this route at least ten times, I can never keep track of where that next landmark, that next turn, is supposed to be. And so I flip through through the radio, find a wonderful folk and bluegrass station, and try to convince myself that I haven't passed it yet, that I haven't been going the wrong way for the last twenty minutes. As soon as I've all but given up hope, the turn comes, and I continue on my way to the boundary (a forestry term for the place you are logging) in Castlewood.

As usual, my country directions include a stoplight without a street name, so I'm left wondering if this really is the correct stoplight. Oh well, I think, its only five miles to the next turn, and if I don't find it, I'll try the next stoplight.

As it turns out, it was only three miles to the next turn, causing me to see it only as I passed by, and then turn around awkwardly in someone's circular driveway, apologizing to them mentally the whole time.

But I make the turn and easily find the next one, though this last road immediately turns into a driveway-esque gravel path. As I head up the mountain, I come across a young man walking without a dog. He waves at me and I think, maybe he's one of Chad's loggers trying to flag me down. I stop and say hi, he says hi back, and we just sit there until I ask "Were you trying to flag me down?"

"No, just wavin'," is his reply.

"Oh ok," I respond, and drive off feeling more like an outsider than usual. I arrive at the end of the road, wondering if this is the place, and hop the gate. At this point, I'm either early or tresspassing. I breathe a sigh of relief when I find Chad's truck at the end of the dirt drive.