email a friend iconprinter friendly iconMining the Summits
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"The coal companies have stripped off hundreds of thousands of acres," says Joe Lovett, an attorney for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, "but they're putting less than one percent of it into productive use."

Yet the industry should get some credit for what it's managed to accomplish in post-mining land use over the years. It's provided a number of West Virginia counties with the flat, buildable space to accommodate two high schools, two "premier" golf courses, a regional jail, a county airport, a 985-acre complex for the Federal Bureau of Investigation near Clarksburg, an aquaculture facility, and a hardwood-flooring plant in Mingo County that now employs 250 workers.

"Economically, we were dying on the vine," said Mike Whitt, executive director of the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, as we toured the 40-million-dollar flooring plant, financed by grants from federal, state, and local governments and by private investors. "So we got OPM —other people's money—to get the job done. Without the infrastructure to create jobs, you're out of the game."

One emerging idea to help keep this under-employed region in the game is commercial forestry—restoring the land not as pasture or golf course or school but as a reincarnation of what used to be here in the rich diversity of the Appalachian forest. Arch Coal, with test plantings already established east of Whitesville, reports it's eager to pursue this option. "Our intent," says Arch's Larry Emerson, "is not just to approximate what was there before mining but, for the long range, establish a commercial forest."

Some foresters are not convinced that Arch is willing to go far enough in its romance with reforestation. James Burger, a professor of forestry at Virginia Tech University and a zealous proponent of turning topless mountains into productive forests, has found in his studies that weathered brown sandstone soils—making up a mountaintop's uppermost layer and therefore the first to be dumped and lost in a valley fill—would be better set aside and used, without compaction, as top dressing for any reforestation. But Arch's forestry consultant argues this would raise substantially the per-acre cost of reclamation.

A few environmentalists, such as Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center, hail Burger's crusade for reforestation as the next best thing to stopping mountaintop mining altogether. Others view it as a cop-out exercise in wishful thinking. "I understand what makes up that forest, and it's not just trees," says Judy Bonds of Coal River Mountain Watch. "I'm talking about the herbs and the plants that evolved here in this forest over thousands of years. Re-create that forest? You couldn't do it in 1,500 years."

Standing in the doorway of the Mountain Watch office on the main street of Whitesville, I listened to Judy Bonds reminisce about the way it was 50 years ago when she was a child. "I used to swim in the Coal River then," she said, "but now it's so full of silt that the water barely comes up to your knees. It breaks my heart. I look at my grandson, and I see that he's the last generation that will hunt and fish in these mountains and dig for ginseng, and actually know mayapple when he sees it. These mountains are in our soul. And you know what? That's what they're stealing from us. They're stealing our soul."

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