Using Abandoned Coal Mines as a Platform for Restoring Nature


Abandoned coal mines, which are some of the most dramatic examples of human interventions in the landscape, are being used as platforms for restoring nature in Germany and the U.S. Appalachian region. In two very different examples, governments, foundations, and local communities are creating and implementing positive visions for ecosystem development or restoration.

One involves creating an ecosystem from scratch out a vast set of mines. In the Lusatia region in east Germany, a “barren moonscape” of abandoned mines some 50 by 22 miles, will be filled in with water, creating a new man-made lake district, writes Der Spiegel

In another case, a key tree species has been reintroduced to restore an ecosystem destroyed by blight and mining. In the U.S. Appalachian region, mountaintop coal mines are now serving as a home once again for the blighted American chestnut, says Solutions journal.

Creating a New Lake Region in East Germany

In Lusatia, coal mines created by the former communist East German government led to the removal of 40,000 people and destruction of 80 villages, along with the destruction of the natural landscape. Der Spiegel writes: “Now, belatedly, the region has embarked on a dramatic and costly project to revamp the derelict and deeply scarred landscape. Vast craters, left behind by the coal mines, are being filled with water, creating a brand new lake district, the biggest of its kind in Europe.” The project director, Rolf Kuhn, a former director of the Bauhaus design school, is leading the $11.7 billion project, which uses national and local funds along with some $30 million in E.U. funds.  

The ambitious project will involve “channelling rivers into the leftover craters.” Several new lakes have already been created, but a total of 23 lakes, which will be joined by canals, are in the works. The idea is to make the lakes “havens for water-sport fans and cyclists.” Local residents are also thrilled by the prospect of doing away with the moonscape. Karin Mietke, a local entrepreneur told Der Spiegel: “Many of those who were expelled from their villages are happy that they don’t have to live with the moonscape for much longer.”

In fact, local entrepreneurs like Mietke are already investing in plans for floating houses and a “floating holiday village” on the lakes. The idea is to recreate the destroyed villages on the lake. On the new Lake Parwitzer, named after a village that once stood there, a new floating wooden house has gone up. According to Der Spiegel, there’s also a new floating diving school and new hotel called “Lake Hotel.” In Scado, a local firm called SteelTec37 aims to create a set of steel houses on the lake at a price of €400,000 each. The new buildings and tourism expected to grow when the lakes are in place are also expected to create lots of new local jobs in a region suffering from 15 percent unemployment.


Kuhn said it’s also important that the region preserve its industrial past. Der Spiegel writes: “The move did not make Kuhn popular at first. Now, though, local tourist attractions include the long-derelict Plessa power station which has found a new life hosting art events. Not far away is a lookout post atop the massive wastewater treatment facilities belonging to the former coking plant in Lauchhammer.” In addition, one of the largest pieces of post-industrial equipment has been transformed into a viewing platform for tourists. “By far the leading tourist attraction in the region is also a dormant post-industrial giant. The overburden conveyor bridge F60 looks something like an Eiffel tower laid flat on the ground. Measuring 500 meters in length, it once munched enormous gashes into the landscape. These days, it provides a viewing platform for tourists.”

The project is expected to be completed by 2015. Read the article and see a slideshow

Restoring American Chestnuts to the Appalachian Region

The Appalachian region, another part of the world scarred by mountaintop coal surface mining, has also lost its American chestnuts, a hardwood species “once known as the redwood of the east,” writes Solutions. The trees could reach 100 feet high and several feet in diameter. “So dominant was this tree that it grew in pure stands up to 100 acres, numbered in the billions, and accounted for nearly one out of every four trees throughout its range.” The timber was also widely used and prized for its versatility and strength, and its nut crop were relied upon “by humans and wildlife alike.”

Beginning in the the early 1900’s, chestnut blight, or Cryphonectria parasitica, began to impact the chestnuts of North America, to devasting effect. Solutions writes: “Traveling about 50 miles each year, the blight left decimated forests in its wake. By the 1950s, the entire range of the chestnut had been affected and approximately 4 billion trees had perished. Through this blight we lost an important wildlife and timber tree and nearly one-quarter of the canopy cover of our forests. Many consider the loss of the American chestnut to be the greatest ecological disaster of the twentieth century.”

Starting in the 1980’s, the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) has focused on restoring the “once-dominant tree” throughout its region by crossing surviving American chestnuts with blight-resistant Asian chestnuts, creating a tree that can stand up to the parasite. However, their end goal is to breed all Asian chestnut characteristics except for blight-resistance out of the American trees. In addition, TACF is also working on fighting Phytophthora root rot, another disease which affected trees in southern regions. 


American chestnuts’ range is located in the same area as Appalachian coal fields. Reforestation projects have already used the Forestry Reclamation Approach to prove that former mining sites can provide a platform for new American chestnut groups. Solutions outlines the many reasons why this approach can work so well: “First, loose mine spoils reclaimed using FRA techniques have shown good growth and high survival rates for other native Appalachian hardwood species and may also be suitable for chestnuts. Second, many surface mines exhibit light and soil chemical characteristics that are similar to higher elevation and ridgetop positions where chestnuts were dominant. Third, loose mine spoils are initially devoid of vegetative competition, a hindrance to many reforestation efforts. Fourth, fresh mine spoils may initially be devoid of pathogenic microbial communities such as Phytophthora, which have hindered TACF’s breeding and restoration efforts elsewhere. Moreover, loose mine spoils are well drained, which may hinder the establishment of Phytophthora. Lastly, the Appalachian coal region falls almost entirely within the natural distribution of the American chestnut.” Still, researchers are watching the trees carefully to ensure the old blights don’t affect the trees on former mining sites. 

Operation Springboard, an initiative of TACF and the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI), aims to promote reforestation on mine lands and restore the American chestnut. According to Solutions, the initiative has already garnered the support of a set of groups that doesn’t usually agree: the mining community, local citizen groups, and environmental organizations. Volunteers are already aiding in the reforestation effort: “In 2009, 520 volunteers and nine separate nonprofit watershed groups held tree-planting events on 36 acres of surface mine land and planted 27,500 trees. In 2010, over 175 acres have been committed for volunteer planting events, and nearly 115,000 trees will be planted.” Furthermore, mining, environmental, and local citizen groups are now engaged in dialogue on the future of the region, which Solutions argues, may be one of the most important outcomes.

Read the article

Also, send in your ideas about how abandoned mines could serve as a platform for restoring nature.  

Image credits: (1) Der Spiegel, (2) Der Speigel, (3) Richard Morin / Solutions

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