Howard Whiteman is a professor of wildlife and conservation biology at Murray State University and director of the Watershed Studies Institute.
In 2014 I drew a coveted Kentucky elk tag from the state’s lottery, which granted me the privilege of hunting a restored elk population in Breathitt County. I had dreamed of hunting elk in the eastern U.S. since I was a young child in Pennsylvania in the 1970s, when I inherited my grandfather’s dusty book of game laws, published when elk were fair game in the Keystone State. By the time I was given that book, elk could not be legally hunted anywhere in the eastern half of the country.
The last of the eastern elk subspecies were killed in the late 1870s in the mountains of Pennsylvania — habitat loss due to human development and market hunting had led to their demise. Elk restoration in the eastern U.S. began in 1913 but only took off when Kentucky, with help from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, started releasing elk in 1997. Over the next five years, 1,541 elk donated from six western states were reintroduced to eastern Kentucky. Most of these elk rely on reclaimed surface mines for forage, which have been critical to the success of the restoration. Kentucky elk now number at least 10,000 animals strong, by far the largest herd east of the Mississippi.
Like a phoenix, the elk have emerged out of the ashes left by the coal industry, and we now have a regal giant roaming the Bluegrass State. The restoration of elk in Kentucky is a wildlife conservation success story, but elk are currently only found in a small slice of the Appalachians. To fully restore eastern elk, we need more than a patchwork of local and state projects; we need one continuous, expansive corridor for them to thrive. Accomplishing this goal would not just benefit the elk; it would help revitalize a land-scarred Appalachia, which has been decimated by decades of surface mining, and sequester carbon in restored wildlands. Coal is a dying industry, and as we wean ourselves off it, we need to repair the degraded habitat its legacy has left behind.
Elk are key to restoring Appalachia because they are an “umbrella species,” to use conservation parlance. They have large home ranges that require a lot of habitat, which in turn covers many other flora and fauna, including threatened and endangered species such as songbirds, salamanders, wildflowers, and even fish and aquatic insects. Restoring elk doesn’t just protect biodiversity, however: It protects the people of the region, too.
Elk restoration has already helped revitalize the economy of eastern Kentucky — the lottery provides important resources for habitat conservation in a 16-county “restoration zone.” Local communities benefit via tourism, guiding services, and all of the other businesses associated with visitors, including restaurants, hotels, and sporting goods stores, totalling more than $5 million in economic impact each year. Pennsylvania is similarly benefiting as its restored elk population has grown, and as the number of elk expands in other states, we should expect similar outcomes.
After spending multiple weekends learning how to hunt on reclaimed coal fields, I killed my first Kentucky elk, a large cow, on a brisk December day. I processed her in the field, hanging her quarters in a scrubby locust tree growing on the strip mine. I carried her piece by piece over the next several days using only a backpack and my quadriceps, just like I’ve done on western hunts.
Hiking through the rolling, restored coal fields of eastern Kentucky with an elk quarter on my back, I felt a bit of Thoreau’s wildness. Maybe not wilderness — not true, Montana-style wilderness with wolves and grizzlies, anyway — but wildness. I was surprised to see abundant signs of white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, bobcats, coyotes, songbirds, darters, and stoneflies along the trail and in nearby streams, all in the midst of a reclaimed strip mine. Seeing elk tracks the size of my hand, I knew I was in the wild.
Such wildness doesn’t have to be limited to small sections of Appalachia; we could expand it by connecting public lands to each other with a patchwork of conservation easements on private lands. We could reclaim the wildness that once existed here, if we restore the mined lands and designate them for conservation.
I know this can work because I have seen similar results in the Rocky Mountains. For the past three decades, I have been conducting field research on a pristine group of ponds in the Elk Mountains of Colorado. The Mexican Cut Nature Preserve is the crown jewel of the Nature Conservancy’s system of preserves in the state, protecting rare subalpine plants and a unique population of salamanders. It was also heavily mined during the silver rush of the late 1800s and then abandoned. Nature healed it — no human intervention, no legislation, no restoration efforts; just nature taking over what 19th-century miners left behind. Their legacy is visible in old mines and debris, but the area is one of the most beautiful and vibrant places on earth.
There are countless other abandoned mines throughout the West, often now surrounded by designated wilderness areas. Elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, dusky grouse, marmots, and numerous other species move in and out of these areas without hesitation. The mining sites in Appalachia are a blink away from this outcome in geologic time. One hundred years of natural restoration could be cut to 50 or even 30 years if we spend a little time and money responsibly helping nature along the restoration process.
I envision contiguous wildlands running from Georgia to Maine, following the ancient mountains and its associated trail, thicker in some areas and thinner in others, but providing both solace for the soul and corridors for our wildlife. Surrounding the wildlands would be a buffer area, where sustainable forestry and motorized vehicles are welcome (the wildlands, though, should be free from them, as studies have shown that trucks, ATVs, and even dirt bikes degrade elk activity and thus habitat quality for elk and other species).
By linking national and state forests, national parks and recreation areas, and other public lands, we can connect Kentucky elk populations with other, smaller restored populations in Tennessee, North Carolina, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Creating a continuous habitat corridor will allow for interbreeding and also provide important migration routes as species respond to climate change. The umbrella will expand as each connection is made, benefiting numerous native species, both terrestrial and aquatic.
The elk umbrella doesn’t stop there. Revegetating surface mines will reduce erosion that can affect local watersheds and will establish large numbers of carbon-sequestering air filters (aka plants) that can help us fight climate change. We could revegetate these mining lands with another iconic but long-lost species, the American chestnut tree, which thrive on the thin, rocky, and acidic soils of strip mines and are better at carbon sequestration than many other trees.
The loss of the American chestnut, which dominated eastern forests until the early 1900s brought chestnut blight, was another strike against the Appalachian Mountains, as its wood and nuts were important to both people and wildlife, including elk. Whether we plant chestnuts, oaks, or poplars, we now have the opportunity to transition Appalachia away from an economy based on resource extraction and turn it into a more diverse and resilient one focused on sustainable forestry, ecotourism, and outdoor recreation, all while helping to shift the carbon balance of our planet in a positive direction.
These new public access areas would be within driving distance to the millions of people living in major Eastern cities. So instead of getting on a plane to find nature, they will be able to drive to experience the same taste of wildness I did while hunting.
Such ideas have been tossed around since Benton MacKaye first envisioned the Appalachian Trail in 1921. In 2002, the Wildlands Network — a nonprofit founded by three icons of conservation, Michael Soule, David Foreman, and Douglas Thompkins — proposed reconnecting forests in Maine to provide corridors for wildlife. The proposal quickly broadened to include the Adirondacks in New York, and by 2015 the idea had expanded to connect them with public land and national parks along the Appalachian Trail and beyond, all the way to the Everglades, in a project called the Eastern Wildway. Although the Wildlands Network has put tremendous time and effort into mapping, planning, and promoting the Wildway, it lacks the financial and political support necessary to make it a reality.
We can restore eastern wildlands if we make the required economic investments in conservation easements for land that is currently owned by mining companies. Many of these companies are finding it more and more difficult to turn a profit in the coal industry — selling their lands or leasing them for conservation has both economic and legal benefits. The Nature Conservancy has already brokered such land deals in the region, creating vast swaths of new public land in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. Along with the Trust for Public Lands and many other land-conservation nonprofits, they are poised to help negotiate future contracts.
With plans in place and organizations on board, all that is left is funding, and the timing has never been better for the federal government to take the lead. The Land and Water Conservation Fund uses royalties from offshore oil and gas leases to support conservation projects in the U.S. More than 60 percent of the fund, or $11.2 billion, has been used to acquire new federal lands. Those are modest funds even for conservation, but it would be a start — a portion could be channeled by Congress to help restore the Appalachian wildlands.
Most land conservation legislation in the U.S. has focused on western states, with good reason: There is more land in the West to protect. For example, the House recently passed the Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act, a collection of eight public lands bills that would conserve more than 2.7 million acres and more than 1,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers in Arizona, Colorado, California, and Washington. Given the Biden administration’s goal of protecting 30 percent of our nation’s land and waters by 2030 and its recently released “America the Beautiful” initiative, is it not reasonable to ask that we also begin to heal our eastern mountains and their people, both environmentally and economically?
The Biden administration’s proposed Civilian Climate Corps could play a large role, as the Civilian Conservation Corps of the last century planted millions of trees, helped develop state and national parks and forests, and created 3 million jobs during the Great Depression. A few months ago, legislators from Colorado and Oregon announced the 21st Century Conservation Corps Act, which is currently focused on resource conservation in western states. A new corps could work to restore Appalachia as well by creating and managing grasslands and forests, which would increase carbon sequestration while providing the forage and cover needed by elk and other wildlife.
We cannot underestimate the economic, social, and even psychological benefits of putting the proud and passionate people of Appalachia back to work and healing their famed mountains. As we debate creating jobs to modernize our concrete and steel infrastructure, we should also consider creating the jobs that will restore our ecological infrastructure.
In a world with a growing human population and rampant resource use, we need more wildness. We cannot bring it back everywhere, and we may never restore everything we have lost from years of abuse and mismanagement in Appalachia. But rather than allowing the region to continue to fester, we can make the best of a bad situation.
Out of the burning ashes of coal, the Appalachians can rise again, just as Kentucky elk have.
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