Wills Creek Land Reforestation

Wills Creek Land Reforestation

Wills Creek is a typical northern Appalachian surface coal mine site, reclaimed under Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) regulations. During reclamation, the soils were heavily compacted and seeded with non-native grasses, forbs, and legumes. A variety of woody species were used in the reclamation as well including, autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), white pine (Pinus strobus), European alder (Alnus glutinosa), black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), and other hardwood species were planted across the site.

Many of the original pines and other hardwood species remain, but much of the area has become dominated by autumn olive. Due to the excessive soil compaction and dense autumn olive stands dominating much of the project area, native tree regeneration is limited and succession will occur much more slowly without intervention.

Over the course of the project, non-native, invasive shrubs and trees (primarily autumn olive) will be removed and approximately 131 acres of surface mined land will be reforested to upland oak-hickory forest in southern Coshocton County, Ohio.

Scope of Work

To enhance the survival and growth rates of planted seedlings, various combinations of site preparation will be used. These will include brush management, herbicide applications, and deep-ripping.

Initial treatments will include mechanical removal of shrub thickets by utilizing a skid-steer driven, rotating mulching head. This method fractures and mulches woody plants, leaving a layer of chipped materials, and is highly effective for clearing large areas of dense vegetation with relatively little soil disturbance. Mechanical removal of brush will occur in the winter of 2016-17.

After brush removal, up to 2 staggered herbicide treatments will be applied to control emergent autumn olive sprouts, competitive grasses and legumes, and other undesirable vegetation that germinates from the seed bank (a combination of Arsenal Powerline and Escort XP herbicides with surfactants and/or adjuvants will be used). The first application, will be applied in summer of 2017 to control the initial re-sprouting of autumn olive and other non-native woody vegetation. The second application will be applied in the fall of 2017 as necessary to control any undesirable vegetation that was not killed during the first application. Herbicide treatments will be applied using a high volume foliar treatments.

Once adequate control of autumn olive and other non-native vegetation is controlled, soil ripping will be required to mitigate soil compaction. Deep-ripping will loosen soils to create a better rooting medium for trees and increased water infiltration, thereby reducing surface runoff and sedimentation. Some exposed soil will result after ripping, which may be quickly colonized by wind-blown and animal dispersed, native plant species, initiating the natural succession process. This will be conducted using Caterpillar D‐9 bulldozer, or equivalent sized machine, pulling two ripping shanks that are fully immersed into the soil to a depth of no less than three feet, creating parallel rips every 8 feet across the project area. The entire project area will then be ripped a second time in an orientation perpendicular to the first set of rips. This is known as “cross-ripping”. This will also be done on 8 foot centers. Cross-ripping is most effective when performed in dry ground because it maximizes soil fracturing, so it will ideally be performed in the fall (Sept. – Oct. 2017). 

The species chosen for planting are native, exfoliating bark species which are preferred summer roost trees by bat species, and those that are known to perform well on surface mined land reforestation projects. A variety of 1-0 and 2-0 bare-root tree seedlings will be planted in the spring of 2018 at a planting density of 681 trees per acre. All 89,211 trees will be hand planted in the intersecting soil furrows created by the cross-ripping soil treatment.

Wildlife benefits from the proposed work

The ripping creates a rough ground surface and exposes large rocks, creating microsites that will provide cover for insects, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. As the planted seedlings grow, this project will create a patch of young forest habitat that many songbirds, game birds, reptiles, and large and small mammals rely on for foraging and breeding. As the forest matures over time and biodiversity increases through the process of succession, different species will benefit, including those that benefit from larger tracts of unbroken forest. Nuts from mature oaks, hickories, and chestnuts will also be beneficial for white-tailed deer, wild turkey, ruffed grouse, and a variety of small mammals that reside in the surrounding forest.

As the forest matures, large contiguous tree cover will provide a resting point and potential breeding ground for many neotropical songbirds. Exfoliating bark from oak and hickory species will provide habitat suitable for several bat species including the endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalis) and threatened northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis). It is also anticipated that the forest created will benefit the local bobcat (Lynx rufus) population and transient black bears (Ursus americanus).

Additional benefits of this project include improved water and air quality, increased carbon sequestration, improved aesthetics, and future economic returns through timber harvests.

Although the proposed work does not include riparian zones, the upland reforestation may improve water quality and in-stream habitat conditions by increasing infiltration, buffering streamflow, filtering runoff, and reducing sedimentation.

Take a look at some before and after photos of the land clearing below.

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