Reclaimed Ohio Coal Lands Put To Good Use
Environmental Article by Harold Hough
“Under the spreading chestnut tree
The village smithy stands.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Unless you are retirement age, the chances are that you have never seen a chestnut tree. That’s because the awe-inspiring chestnut nearly became extinct in the mid twentieth century thanks to a deadly fungus. Fortunately, thanks to reclaimed coal mine land, we can once again see what was once one of the most common trees in the Eastern United States.
American Electric Power (AEP) had been in the coal mining business for more than 70 years and was among the top 20 coal producers in the US as well as the largest user of coal. AEP began originally nearly 100 years ago as a group of small utilities spread throughout the East and Midwest. Obviously, as the operator of a massive fleet of coal burning power plants, it was in the company’s best interest to acquire several coal mines in order to secure a source of energy and keep prices under control. It has since closed or sold its mining operations, but it is still committed to improving its reclaimed mining properties.
Since the East and Midwest are the heart of AEP territory, the Chestnut Project is one that made sense. The American chestnut tree was a fast growing tree that often reached 100 feet in height. For centuries it was one of the most common hardwoods (in fact, one in four hardwood trees in the Central Appalachians was a chestnut) and a source for food (roasting chestnuts on the open fire) and building materials. The wood was easily worked and resistant to rot, which made it ideal for building and fine furniture.
Disaster struck, however in 1904 when a fungus was discovered attacking the chestnut trees at the Bronx Zoological Park in New York City. It quickly spread and within 50 years, nearly every chestnut in America was destroyed. Although there are stump sprouts found in many areas, most harbor the fungus, and repeated attacks have stopped the cultivation of the tree for its wood or nuts.
Thanks to the American Chestnut Foundation, and extensive support from AEP, the American Chestnut is making a comeback. Scientists have crossbred some of the remaining trees with resistant Asian species to produce a blight resistant hybrid. And, The new fungus-resistant chestnut tree grows best in soil conditions found on reclaimed land.
RECLAIMING COAL MINING LAND
AEP has a reputation for quality reclamation of its former coal mining lands. Since 1996, the company has planted over 63 million trees on over 60,000 acres. It was natural, therefore for the American Chestnut Foundation to team up with AEP to reintroduce the chestnut, especially since much of its reclaimed land is in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia; home to the chestnut before the fungus hit.
The Forest Management Partnership Agreement signed by the two groups make much of the land being reclaimed by AEP available to the Foundation for reintroducing chestnuts. Some of the chestnut trees were planted in AEP’s crown jewel of reclamation, the 60,000 acre ReCreation Land; a major recreation area in southeastern Ohio, where coal was once mined.
The story of the ReCreation Land began in the 1940s when the dominant industry, agriculture, began to shrink in this part of Ohio. As the population moved to cities and land values dropped, many mining companies began to move in to exploit what was to become Ohio’s greatest coal reserve. During the 20th Century, two billion tons of earth were removed - equal to eight times the amount moved to build the Panama Canal.
Contrary to the claims of environmentalists, reclamation was required back in the 1940s and mining companies immediately began to revegetate the land once mining was completed. The reclamation produced forested hills and valleys. In 1972, new surface mining and reclamation laws were enacted that resulted in gently rolling grasslands that are well suited for pasture and hay land. The hills, trees, and grasslands provide a habitat for numerous types of wildlife.
The area has now also become a recreational center for that part of Ohio. The 60,000 acre area covers part of four countries and features 380 campsites and 600 lakes. Over the years, AEP has planted over 63,000 trees on the land. More than 100,000 people visit there each year. In 1998, ReCreation Land was recognized by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources as the largest single outdoor recreation facility in Ohio.
Thanks to the environmental commitment of AEP, the Eastern United States will be better than it was just a few decades before. The chestnut tree is beginning to repopulate the forests of the East. As Longfellow once said, “We can make our lives sublime and, departing, leave behind us footprints on the sands of time.” AEP is surely leaving its footprints in the sands of time for those who love the great outdoors