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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Can Coal Mining Be Good for Habitat?

by Steve Sorensen (Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, May 25, 2013.)

What words come to mind when you think of coal mining? Probably not “good wildlife habitat” – not unless you’ve seen what I’ve seen.  

Last week I was invited on a combination turkey hunt and “energy tour” in the southwestern corner of the state. (Yes, I scored on my #2 gobbler of the season, with daggers for spurs, but that’s a story for another day.)

We tend to think of malls and parking lots 
as some of the chief destroyers of habitat, 
but it hasn’t always been that way.

Our small group hunted and toured for three days, and one of the places we visited was a site where long-wall mining caused the ground to sag about 4½ feet after the mining was finished. It’s called “subsidence,” and you’d think it was an ecological disaster. But through cooperation between the Pennsylvania Game Commission and CONSOL Energy, facilitated by the National Wild Turkey Federation, a big pile of rotten lemons were turned into refreshing lemonade for many wildlife species.

We tend to think of malls and parking lots as some of the chief destroyers of habitat, but it hasn’t always been that way. For decades, most people thought swamps were wasteland, and draining them was good. In fact, the federal government actually paid farmers to drain wetlands to put more land into production. Even our government failed to see the value of wetlands as wildlife habitat. Consequently, we don’t have the wetlands we once had, and it’s the most needed type of wildlife habitat in Pennsylvania.

Wetland acreage is at an all-time low, and many wildlife species are desperate for wetlands. Doug Dunkerley, Southwest Regional Land Manager for the Game Commission, says, “Of the 36 threatened and endangered species in Pennsylvania, 71% of them require wetlands at some time during their lifecycles.” Without wetlands, they become extinct.

One stretch of mine subsidence. In 2010 it was sunken ground. Today it’s valuable wetland.

How do you reclaim wetlands? Most of the time you don’t, and the cost can be astronomical – up to $100,000 per acre. But mine subsidence is an opportunity to make new wetlands, which is what CONSOL Energy is doing in cooperation with the Game Commission.

In the past when long-wall mines subsided, outdated science said to fill in the holes, compact the ground, grade it, throw down some topsoil, and plant fescue, white pine and locust to mitigate erosion. It amounted to putting cosmetics on dead land. It would be green, but it wouldn’t be wildlife habitat.

The role of the National Wild Turkey Federation in this is primarily to be a facilitator. Jay Jordan, NWTF's Energy for Wildlife coordinator, says. “What many people consider damage to the landscape is better thought of as impact, and impact can be good.”

With the guidance of the proper consultants in biology, geology and hydrology, the coal company financed the project and turned the land over to the Game Commission in 2011. It has been transformed into wetlands, and already teeming with wildlife. “Everybody wins,” says Dunkerley. “Countless wildlife species benefit, not just game species. You'll see more wildlife here than you will most places – ducks, geese, bats, swallows, tadpoles, aquatic insects, and a lot more.” 

On this particular site in Greene County, the Game Commission received 212 acres from CONSOL in a trade for 55 acres elsewhere. All totaled, CONSOL has donated or traded properties to add roughly 44,000 acres to the wildlife habitat managed by the Game Commission.

Can mining be good for wildlife habitat? You bet it can.


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