Stripping coal from a mountain demands a wholesale rearrangement of its summit and the transformation of the surrounding forest into a moonscape. Enormous machines rip out the vegetation first, followed by the topsoil, and finally a layer or two of rock. It all becomes waste, dumped into a valley below the site. The federal Surface Mining Reclamation Act of 1977 requires coal companies to leave the denuded land in roughly the shape they found it or restore it to “higher and better use” at their expense, though many of them find ways to slip out of the obligation. 

It’s hard to know how much unreclaimed and partially reclaimed mine land exists, though some place the figure at 633,000 acres across Appalachia. As many as 100,000 of them may lie in Virginia alone. Much of this land is a quagmire of erosion, water pollution, and other problems, yet some of it is slowly being taken back by the forest. It may be ill, but it certainly is not dead, and is in many cases surprisingly alive, as scientists have found over decades of studying the reforestation and recovery of mined lands.

A manual, written in September by a coalition of southwestern Virginia scientists and advocates of sustainable development, used new and existing findings to shape a vision for these ravaged landscapes. Flat land is hard to come by in the mountainous central Appalachian region, and much of the development has occurred on ridges flattened by coal strip mines. These sites, often deemed empty space at best and wastelands at worst, have been targeted for everything from prisons, Walmarts, and industrial parks to lavender farms, wildlife preserves, and, most recently, clean energy projects. As millions in public and private investment, boosted by the bipartisan infrastructure law, pour into the region, many people are eyeing these abandoned sites.

The researchers of the High Knob Regional Initiative want them to slow down and take a look at what’s already there.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Some of these sites, especially the older sites, have begun to restore themselves in a way where forests started to come in, and wildlife is coming into some of the sites on their own,” said Wally Smith, a biologist at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and the team’s leader. “We’re increasingly finding that it’s not true that these are just ecological voids where nothing is living there.”

For decades, researchers, including some affiliated with the Initiative, have studied a variety of mine lands, from underground shafts to decades-old strip mines to more recently leveled sites, some overgrown with forest, others bearing nothing but stubby autumn olives (a non-native shrub) and scraggly grasses. Not only has the natural world crept back into many of these places, but so too has a multiplicity of flora and fauna, including rare and endangered species. The green salamander, currently under consideration for inclusion on the federal endangered species list, turned up in several locations in Wise County, Virginia, for instance. On another site, mined three or four decades ago, Smith’s team found mammalian diversity higher than in some parts of the surrounding forest, especially where wetlands had formed or been constructed. 

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Previous research has suggested wetlands and forest can be an integral part of surface mine reclamation, filtering out acidic drainage, heavy metals, and other contaminants that can seep from mine sites for years or even decades. In some cases these marshy areas formed as a result of the changes to the landscape.

Smith hopes local leaders use the region’s current moment of energy and economic transition to correct, rather than exacerbate, land use mistakes of the past. Poorly planned construction can easily erase this progress, as seen with Spearhead Trails, a vast and controversial network of ATV paths sprawled over reforested former mine land, owned by the Nature Conservancy, in southwestern Virginia. An investigation by the Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism found that erosion and dust tore up creek beds, damaged homes and family cemeteries, and caused flooding. 

Many people, Smith feels, see mine lands as real estate, already lost and as good as trash. He pointed to a feasibility study an engineering company filed with Virginia’s department of energy in support of a small modular nuclear reactor slated for a former strip mine in southwest Virginia. The document finds “there are few environmental restrictions regarding the preservation of the existing environment” and that a reactor fits the description of a “higher and better use.” 

“The environmental considerations that you would normally consider for something like an intact forest are not there,” said Smith. “They’re kind of these guilt-free development sites.”

Smith stresses that his team isn’t arguing against development, but rather, in favor of sustainable development that brings underserved members of the impacted communities into planning processes earlier and more often than currently required. The coal industry ran rampant over the region’s mountaintops and privatized huge swathes of land for profit, and the researchers say now is a chance to try a more ecologically sound, community-centered approach. 

To that end, the High Knob Regional Initiative compiled its years of research into a set of best-use recommendations for the region’s former mine lands. The guidelines target recreational development, energy development, and other construction projects, and urge developers and local officials to incorporate more environmental assessment, transparency, and public input into planning efforts, which should consider the possible effects on local communities.

“You really got this very big, maybe a kaleidoscope is the best way to say [it], with all these properties that had been mined and managed in different ways,” Smith said. “What that really means is there’s not a one-size-fits-all conclusion that you can reach about the impacts for wildlife and native ecosystems there.”

There’s also a real sense of wanting to reclaim these lands not only for the ecosystem, but also for the human communities that live there. Corporations that benefited from coal’s glory days may continue to profit from using the region’s land in other ways, even if they’re less environmentally destructive than before. For instance, the mine lands of several Appalachian states are becoming utility-scale solar fields. One of them near Wise, Virginia, is owned by Dominion Energy, which profited heartily from Virginia’s resources through gas and coal.

Tarah Kesterson, communications director for Virginia’s regional Abandoned Mine Land Program, said that the state consults with mine lands developers on permitting, but ultimately, the landowners have the final say on how projects treat the land, with the agency focused more on safety fixes to shore up any problems with the stability of the land itself.

More community-engaged projects could be possible soon, she says. With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act last year, coalfields states suddenly have more funding to restore abandoned mines than ever before. Virginia will get upward of $22.7 million per year for 15 years. Kesterson hopes the windfall will be an opportunity to look at mine land restoration more holistically. “It’ll give us more opportunities to look at the effects of abandoned mine lands on these communities and maybe do community projects rather than a little fix-it here and there,” she said.