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UN treaty could boost Appalachian tree project
Cancun, Mexico

UN treaty could boost Appalachian tree project

Reforestation and the prevention of deforestation could be the major news out of the United Nations conference on climate change beginning Monday.

If that’s true, it could boost the chances of a reforestation program in Appalachia taking root.

The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, a joint initiative of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, state regulatory agencies, industry and citizens, has been reforesting surface mined lands since 2004. With some sites showing as high as 90-percent survival rates, some ARRI members have proposed that the federal government begin a jobs program based on ARRI’s work, reforesting up to a million acres of land devastated by surface mining.

The proposal, called Green Forest Works for Appalachia, was developed by the ARRI science team and is being pushed by the American Bird Conservancy. The proposal, which was first given to members of Congress and the White House a year ago, asks that the U.S. government create a jobs program similar to the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal era, in which government-paid laborers would plant tree seedlings on strip-mined land across Appalachia. According to the proposal, the project would create 2,000 jobs and plant 125 million trees on 175,000 acres of disturbed land in five years. The plan is to create so much work, that it will not only create manual labor jobs, but jobs for foresters, truck drivers, equipment operators and nursery employees.

So far it hasn’t gained any traction.

Dr. Patrick Angel, one of two OSM foresters responsible for the federal government’s field work on reforestation of mined lands, said he had little hope that the proposal would be approved. Since he is prohibited from lobbying for the effort because he is a federal employee, Angel said he has no idea where it stands with Members of Congress and the president, but he’s not optimistic.

“The American people are clamoring about stimulus money for roads and bridges, so I don’t think there’s any mood for ‘tree-hugging’ jobs,” Angel said.

If he sounds bitter, it’s no wonder. Angel, who earned his Ph.D. in forestry while working as a mining inspector, said he believes there is no one who knows more about reforesting mined lands than ARRI scientists, most of whom work at universities in the coalfields. Those scientists have been planting trees on strip mines since 2004, examining the results, and developing new planting methods to address problems. In the past two years, the program has planted 177,500 trees on 22 abandoned mines in six states with the help of 2,500 volunteers. Since it began, it has facilitated the planting of 70 million trees on 103,000 acres of mine sites under active reclamation.

“Everyone across the board sees it as a success, including the U.N.,” Angel said. The United Nations Environment Programme sent the deputy director of the Regional Office for North America to participate in one of the plantings in Letcher County.

If the U.N. negotiators in Cancun develop a treaty on reforestation, it could lead to renewed interest in the ARRI program.

If it doesn’t, ARRI will keep working anyway. Angel said the group hopes to plant five times as many trees in 2011 as it did last year. The difference now? ARRI has funding to buy the trees rather than beg them from nurseries. Electric generating plants and other large companies are putting money into the project in order to get carbon credits out of it. The motivation isn’t a concern for Angel.

“We don’t care about that as long as we get to plant some trees,” he said.