Seeds of reclamation planted by Penn State DuBois students

Wildlife students at Penn State DuBois are helping to establish a forest where there was once just barren land devastated by strip mining. Students are now planting trees on a 3.5 acre portion of reclaimed strip mine near Coal Glenn, Jefferson County. Two core goals of this study are to find out what methods of planting will allow trees to prosper at reclaimed mine sites, and to try growing American chestnut trees at such sites. Successful growth could mean a rebirth of the chestnut, a species virtually wiped from the face of the earth by an invasive fungus in the early 20th century.

The students are working with Gary Gilmore, a forester for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) Bureau of Forestry. Gilmore has spearheaded the project for DEP, and said hardwood growth on strip mined land has not been successful in the past. "Pines grow well, grass grows well, but hardwoods can't," he explained. "Soil compaction is a big issue; also, the seedlings can't compete with the grass, or the deer that feed on them."

Penn State DuBois Forestry Instructor Aaron Stottlemyer explained soil compaction and how it hinders tree growth. "Common reclamation practices that involve heavy machinery compact the soil, and then the land is planted in heavy grass cover to reduce erosion," he said. "We're interested in whether tree growth can be improved by loosening soil and reducing competition with grasses for light, water and nutrients."

Gilmore outlined four basic methods that will be tested for planting throughout this study. In one area they will simply observe the trees they've planted. In another area, they will kill the grass close to the seedlings to eliminate competition for nutrients and light. In the third area they will bulldoze 18 inches of soil form the surface, then plant in the softer layer underneath. Finally, in the fourth area they will use herbicides to kill all other vegetation around the seedlings. "This will show us the best way to establish the growth of hardwoods out of the four different methods," said Gilmore.

The site is fenced in to keep deer from feeding on the tiny trees. Other smaller animals, however, may pose a problem. Instructor of Wildlife Technology Keely Roen said rodents such as mice and voles may eat the nuts that have been planted on this site. She and the wildlife students want to find out by setting live traps for the animals around the site for tracking purposes.

Gilmore says growth of these trees will be observed for at least 10 years. Penn State DuBois students will help to monitor the study until its end. Each generation of wildlife technology majors will be involved in various stages of the study.

"I couldn't do it without them," Gilmore said of the students involved with the project. "Hopefully, they also get great experience from it too."

"This is exciting," said student Erica McKinney. "I know I'm helping to build something like this that will really help the environment."

Student Amanda Malacarne may be here for the initial stages of the study, but looks forward to one day learning what future students find. "This is will interesting," she said. "I can't wait to hear what the results are in the end."

Gilmore said the results will be more than interesting. With more than 200,000 acres of strip mined land to reclaim in Pennsylvania, he's eager to find the keys to reestablishing hardwood forest at mine sites to bring about a rebirth to much of the state's environment.

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Last Updated April 07, 2009