A New Deal for Appalachia’s Forests: Growing Biofuels and Producing Biochar

The mine-ravaged communities of Eastern Kentucky have been increasingly abandoned by the coal economy. Could growing biofuels jump-start a new local jobs market-and renew the land in the process?

May 31, 2013 | Source: Yes Magazine | by Mark Andrew Boyer

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Using valuable food crops like corn and sugar cane to produce biofuels has been a highly controversial topic in an age of imminent food crises. But nobody is growing corn on the former strip mines of Eastern Kentucky.

A look at the region on Google Earth shows a patchwork of bald spots in the forested hills. Surface mining left its mark on the Appalachian landscape through much of the 20th century, as large swaths of native forest were replaced with sparse, scrubby grassland. But University of Kentucky forestry professor Chris Barton sees in the compacted soil of old strip mines the possibility of using former surface mine land for short-rotation forestry-in order to produce fuel.

Here’s how it would work: Fast-growing, native trees like black locust could be grown and harvested every five to 10 years; then, the woodchips would be burned in an oxygen-restricted condition to produce combustible gases that in turn could be used to generate energy and heat. After a few generations of short-rotation harvests, the land could be transitioned to a long-term forest.

Barton is the founder of Green Forests Work, a nonprofit spin-off of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative that seeks to reforest lands scarred by mining with native trees-all the while helping to rebuild struggling local economies.

A Conservation Corps for the 21st Century

When President Obama delivered his 2009 inauguration speech, he talked about creating green jobs. A light bulb turned on for Barton. Realizing that his reforestation initiative was a shovel-ready project that could create jobs right away, Barton began thinking about approaching the federal government for financial support.

Surface mining strips away nutrient-rich topsoil and leaves a devastated landscape that is prone to landslides and water contamination. With the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, mining companies were required to stabilize the land when they were finished mining in order to control erosion. But instead of merely stabilizing, mining companies over-compacted more than 1 million acres of former surface mines using bulldozers. This made it difficult for anything other than grasses and other non-native vegetation to grow.

“This is an environment that had over 100 species of vegetation prior to the mining,” explains Barton. “And when you get out on the sites and look down, it’s not like looking at your yard and seeing lush grass carpeting; you’re going to see very sparse grass, and a lot of patchiness.” Now, if Barton’s plan works, he hopes to undo some of that damage.