Coal was recently mined from this ground on Zeb Mountain. But what was put back looks like good for nothing land. Barren and rocky-what could possibly grow here other than a few weeds? But a thick forest? Surprisingly sooner than you might think.
Dr. Jennifer Franklin (UT AgResearch)
'Yeah, actually there's nothing wrong with the soil. It's the same as our forests are growing on.'
UT's Dr. Jennifer Franklin and Dr. David Buckley head a group from Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries working to grow new trees on former coal mining sites.
Dr. Jennifer Franklin
'We're looking at ways to try to restore forests, particularly native hardwood forests.'
Past environmental regulations required coal companies to plant something over land that had been mined, and usually that came in the form of grasses. Now Franklin and Buckey have planted thousands of hardwood trees on four sites in Campbell and Anderson counties. Oak, hickory and black walnut have been growing here for about two years.
Dr. David Buckley (UT AgResearch)
'We can plant trees fortunately from the get-go, and they will survive. But a lot of our questions go into what species should we plant? We have sort of a clean slate.'
This soil is obviously full of rocks, but vegetation can still grow here. The issue is more about how the soil is tightly compacted. Ideally you want loose soil that allows trees to develop roots, which slows erosion.
Dr. Jennifer Franklin
'With the soil compacted, the roots can't extend down into the soil. So if the roots don't grow well, the above portion of the tree doesn't grow well. We see a lot of trees planted five or ten years ago that are still very small.'
UT graduate students are also planting chestnut seedlings on old mining sites. Chestnuts were plentiful in this area about half a century ago, but disease wiped many out. Researchers say we need healthy forests if we want to return this land to its previous state.
Dr. David Buckley
'The way we're extending this research is really looking more closely at the species of ground cover that we're planing, maybe different micro-environmental factors that you have across these sites-temperature, moisture, root growth, what happens below ground. Those are all pieces of the puzzle that still need to be worked out.'
It will take years for this land to be transformed into a mature forest, but UT researchers hope to shorten that time. Despite its current appearance, this hillside is far from useless, and it could even be beautiful again someday.
NOTE: A group of scientists from the Czech Republic have traveled to Tennessee to see this mine reclamation work as part of a collaborative study with UT. There is similar work going on in their country.