Nurse Logs: Caring for the Next Generation

Sometimes it takes me a long time to complete blog posts. An idea will rattle around for weeks on my desktop, half-developed or nearly finished. I often wonder what I am waiting for and wring my hands about writer’s block.

Nearly a month ago, I posted a philosophical piece about the ways our economy resembles a forest. Both are dominated by large vertical structures that hoard resources, and those vertical structures are increasingly vulnerable to cataclysmic domino-effect collapses that both make a huge mess and provide dramatic opportunities for smaller and more nimble undergrowth to flourish and eventually replace the current regime.

I always planned to follow that up with some thoughts about less-cataclysmic change. That is, when an individual tree goes down, its trunk is broken down into available nutrients, creating “nurse logs” that can be found on the forest floor, manifesting as linear patch of vibrant growth that benefits from both the release of material resources from the nurse log itself and the opening in the canopy (which lets in water and light).

In this case I’m glad I waited out my writer’s block because it turns out that I just needed a certain experience to help crystallize the concept into an applied illustration.

Last weekend I took an unexpected trip to Appalachia, Virginia. The Faith and Money Network has been cultivating relationships there as a form of “reverse mission” to teach people from relatively-wealth cities about poverty, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time to benefit from an open space on one of their Trips of Perspective. I’m grateful to both Mike Little for the generous offer to tag along, and whomever it was that had to cancel at the last minute. I learned a lot about an issue that had only barely registered, but which I now recognize as a serious economic and environmental crisis in its own right as well as a harbinger of what capitalism has in store for us all.

I had previously heard of “mountain top removal.” It is just what it sounds like. Explosives and large machines scrape off the tops of mountains and shove them into valleys, picking out what little coal is left in the dwindling seams. This process has generally replaced underground mining because the thicker seams that could be dug out through underground tunnels have been extracted to the point that they are not profitable enough for coal companies seeking quick profits. The thin seams remaining are close to the surface, so just scraping off the mountain is quicker and cheaper than sending workers underground. The increased automation is a major contributor to job losses in the area.

A work in progress.

Mountaintop removal is an ugly process even after they (sort of) restore the original contours, throw down some grass and pine seedlings, and hope that the new “mountain” doesn’t totally erode right away. From what I’ve seen, it usually does erode, often badly. And sometimes there are catastrophic flash floods and debris flows, which do huge damage to homes in the mostly-impoverished coal camps that lie along the streams now polluted by runoff from these huge operations.

Appalachia was once a thriving mining center, and its run down main street includes an old hotel of eight stories as well as a charming four-story building built on curved street so that each floor is at street level. It is now a hollowed-out ghost town with about 5% of its peak population, nearly surrounded by devastation. It is also a center of resistance to mountaintop removal, home to the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.

The main plant has already been demolished and they will eventually demolish these silos.

SAMS has organized local citizens and recently halted a plan to remove Ison Rock Ridge, which looms over the town. However, there is always a new struggle in this David/Goliath Story; when the high school recently closed as part of a countywide consolidation that eliminated half of the six high schools, the coal companies apparently did an assessment of turning the site into a coal mine. Mining is happening so close to the area’s residents that a stray boulder from midnight blasting actually rolled down a hillside and killed a boy in his bed in 2004.

You have to see it to believe it. I was only able to take a few photos of the edge of things, but this map gives a better idea of the scale and proximity to town (although some older projects are not immediately visible from space).

I got a chance to look at a “reclaimed” area about as old as I am, and it looked nothing like the original landscape – it wasn’t even moving in that direction. Rather, it was covered with about half grass and brush, with the main trees being non-native Russian olive, locust and pine. It looked like a big debris pile with some half-hearted vegetation waiting for a big enough rainstorm to collapse into the nearest stream.

Note difference between original forest at left and “reclaimed” area in foreground.

The topsoil is buried in the process of removal and the crushed sandstone and rocks of the mountain’s remnants must be compacted to prevent erosion. So synthetic fertilizers are needed to give the new plants a chance of survival. Judging from what I saw, the process in not often successful.

As I noted in my last post, forests don’t just grow on bare rock or debris piles. Building a mountainside forest takes a bit more patience and care than the average for-profit mining company can muster. Certain stages of development are needed, and certain resources must be available before they can just skip along to the next stage.

Now, I’m no expert on how to rebuild a mountain successfully, and I’m not even sure it can be done. I definitely think it is better to leave mountains where they are. However, I mountaintop removal is a reality that must be worked around for the immediate future, and opponents must develop viable alternatives to help the area transition out of its economic dependence on this unsustainable activity.

One opportunity that seems worthy of exploration (at least to an outsider who knows very little about the economic and technical realities) is to shift responsibility for restoration from the coal companies to local – ideally cooperative – contractors. Rather than bury the living skin of the mountain, the topsoil and brush from one mountain could be anchored onto a nearby rebuilt mountain before it is replanted. Large limbs and trunks could be a key part of this woven framework, since their decay would do more to restore the mountain’s ecology than any amendments humans could provide.

This process would be more labor-intensive (read “job-producing”) than current methods, and would require additional materials – including perhaps something resembling giant staples to keep logs from moving, and a biodegradable mesh fabric to hold smaller materials in place. These could be the seeds of new industrial development in the region, providing jobs along with the additional labor needed to transport, arrange and anchor the biomass.

This would not solve the inherent problems surrounding mountaintop removal, but it would mitigate their impact and potentially put restoration in the hands of local people who have a vested interest in its being effective in the long term.

Something like this has already happened. In 1971, the Hoedads Reforestation Cooperative was founded in Oregon. It grew to employ 300 worker-owners in crews operating in clear cuts throughout the West, and the co-op expanded from tree planting to a variety of other forest-related businesses. The organization lasted until the mid-90s, at which point its demise was attributed to their not being as many clear cuts in need of restoration – victims of their own success.

There are additional technical challenges to restoring a mountain that has been torn apart and sort of rebuilt, even beyond the challenges of healing a clear cut. But I’m sure the Hoedads faced some pretty devastating erosion in their times, and their alumni would be well-suited to help identify organizational lessons learned and think through adaptations of their restoration processes and financial model (since mountaintop removal is generally occurring on private land, the contracting methods would have to be different).

So here’s the part where I get all philosophical and stuff:

In the same way that the new Hoedads could employ nurse logs to hold together mountains, they could serve as a nurse log for the new economy, beginning to break down and repurpose the economic resources currently trapped in the great vertical structures of the mining companies. This new cooperative could also include sustainable timber harvest and non-forest timber products modeled after Fair Trade Appalachia, a worker co-op operating not far to the west of Wise county, in Tennessee and Kentucky. Indeed, there is potential for federated structures to market and distribute these products throughout the region and beyond. Additional ideas could be drawn from the Center for Cooperative Forest Enterprises.

The catch is that each mountaintop that is removed under the current regime is a loss of resources, in the same way that each tree trunk removed through clear cutting is a lost nurse log. And the overall weakness in the global and national economies mean that there are limited resources from outside to support this project. Time is short, and ultimately this work must be led by the people of Appalachia.

But the rest of us should pay attention to this proverbial canary in the coal mine. Unless we are able to come up with viable local alternatives, our economy will continue to be hollowed out by for-profit extractive industries and other businesses that base their success on extracting wealth from the communities in which they do business. Appalachia is our future.

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One Response to Nurse Logs: Caring for the Next Generation

  1. Pingback: Appalachia and the Basques « Cooperate and No One Gets Hurt

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