Officials from the Canaan Valley Institute are working with the Monongahela National Forest Service to restore the Barton's Bench section of the forest to a natural state.
The Barton's Bench ecological area is located in Randolph County, nearly a mile southwest of Cromer Top and Route 92, CVI documents state. It was heavily mined for coal in the 1970s on land that was owned by Mower Lumber Company, who sold it to the National Forest after mining was completed in the 1980s. Restoration of the land will include road decomissioning, the creation of wetlands areas and the planting of different species of plants and trees.
"We want to put this into a condition where it's self-sustaining," said Mike Owen, watershed project manager for the forest.
The Inter-Mountain photo by Casey Houser
From left, Mike Owen, watershed project manager for the Monongahela National Forest Service, stands with Todd Miller, director of aquatic restoration at Canaan Valley Institute. CVI is working with the Forest Service to create wetland areas at the Barton’s Bench section of the Monongahela National Forest.
Owen said the total Mower area is approximately 41,000 acres. Only a small portion of that, about 90 acres, is being reclaimed in the Barton's Bench project.
Funding for road decomissioning is being provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Mitigation funds which are distributed by the WVDEP are providing funding for the wetlands. Lyle Bennett of the WVDEP said recent land development near Cheat Lake impacted wetlands, and state laws require mitigation of that impact.
Mitigation, in this case, is taking place through funds given to the WVDEP, which can be handed off to separate wetlands projects like Barton's Bench, Owen said.
He spoke about previous reclamation attempts and water drainage in the Barton's Bench area.
When mining was finished, non-native grass species were planted, but native plants and trees could not take hold in competition with the grass and compacted land, he said.
In addition to compacted land, mining roads that ran through the area were causing improper precipitation drainage. Hard land does not allow rain and snow to seep into the ground and drain slowly into natural streams. Instead, water drains quickly across the surface, causing erosion.
Mining roads aggravated this process by funneling the fast-draining water into channels which dug into forest lands.
This eventually resulted, Owen said, in what are known as headcuts. A headcut can be envisioned by picturing a stream that constantly erodes its banks, eats away the lower part of the bank and causes the upper part to fall into the water. A normal stream is stable and does not erode its banks, but fast-moving water can create headcuts.
A headcut not only destroys the surface it touches but also is a source of sediment pollution, Owen said. Eroded sediment ends up in the final drainage area where the draining water ends up, such as a separate stream.
Owen also discussed the actions taken in the few years before this current project.
The Forest Service addressed the various problems by designating Barton's Bench as a Spruce restoration area, CVI documents said, which includes the planting of red spruce trees.
The Forest Service's first action was to aerate as much land as they could. This was completed more than two years ago with funding granted from the WVDEP, he said.
The Forest Service used a grater, pulled behind a bulldozer, to cut several-foot trenches into the soil, allowing water to seep in slowly. The result is land that's significantly less compacted and allows for plant species to take root.
He said a freeze/thaw cycle will exacerbate the process. As water gets into the dirt it can freeze, expand and separate it even further.
"We want water to be in the soil," Owen said.
After the Forest Service's efforts, the CVI was called in to help.
"Our mission is to restore streams," said Todd Miller, director of aquatic restoration at CVI.
Owen said Miller and the CVI have the resources and flexibility to accomplish many tasks that the Forest Service couldn't do alone. CVI workers Ken Dzaack, Josh Saville, Will Postlethwait and Miller are all working on this project.
Following the land aeration, Miller planned the decomissioning of all roads in Barton's Bench, a multi-step process that includes digging up dirt that will be repositioned to mimic the natural slope of the hill on which the road sits. Native species can also be planted in the area to decrease erosion.
In forest areas where there are many trees, Miller showed the Inter-Mountain decomissioned roads that were covered in grasses, leaves and dead trees. CVI is closing each road as they work backward toward the entrance of Barton's Bench.
Additionally, wetlands areas are being created in two spots where the land is covered mostly in grass. The two wetlands were positioned downhill from multiple service roads and will be used to help that area collect precipitation, slow erosion and create a wildlife habitat, Miller said.
"This is one of the wetter places in the state," Miller said, with more than 50 inches of rain a year, making the area a suitable spot for wetland.
Wood chips will be dumped into each wetland pool area. The chips will decompose and create dark, wetland soils, Miller said.
He also said a mix of wetland seeds will be planted, and will require a freeze and thaw cycle to germinate. Snags, or dead trees, will be placed in the pools so that birds and bats will have a place to perch and hunt.
Miller said plants are the first step to creating a sustainable habitat. Plants stabilize the soil and create a suitable place for various animal species to thrive.
Runoff areas for the wetlands are also being built by the CVI crew. A series of steps are being created to emulate natural runoff areas.
Large rocks, Miller said, are placed at the front of each step, to keep the shape stable. After the remainder of each step is filled in with dirt, a mesh is placed along the banks. The mesh will keep the banks from eroding for several months while trees and plants grow in the soil.
The mesh is made of coconut fiber and is completely biodegradable.
"We try to increase our chances of success by enhancing what is already there," Miller said. "You do what nature did, if you can emulate that."
Contact Casey Houser by email at email@example.com.