Coalfields restoration project builds on its past with an eye to the future


Carl Zipper shows the success of restoration efforts at the Powell River Project.

Carl Zipper shows the success of restoration efforts at the Powell River Project.

by Zeke Barlow

When the seeds of the Powell River Project were planted more than 30 years ago, there was scant science on how to best restore lands disturbed by coal mining, much less any longevity of scientific research on the subject.

Three decades later, the Virginia Tech project has not only yielded groundbreaking research on how to restore natural processes to landscapes in Southwestern Virginia coal country, it has also produced evidence that has led to new reclamation practices that help repair the natural environment around the country. Now a new generation of scientists is examining issues including stream reconstruction, invasive species, microbial ecology, and carbon sequestration, among others.

Over the years, an interdisciplinary cadre of scientists from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Natural Resources and Environment, the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, and others working at the site have broken new scientific ground on everything from forestry and soil reconstruction to water quality and the creation of wildlife habitat.

“In terms of integrated, mined land reclamation research, the Powell River Project’s mix of investigators is the best in the world,” said W. Lee Daniels, a professor of crop and soil environmental sciences who has worked on the project since it’s inception. “Without a doubt, this is the longest continually and intensively monitored mine reclamation research site in the world.”

One of the benefits for researchers working at the site is the ability to build on the scientific findings of those who came before them. That is invaluable to Carl Zipper, a professor of crop and soil environmental sciences, Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist, and director of the Powell River Project.

“This longevity of research is so important because it allows us to understand how the new ecological systems created by mine reclamation work over the long term,” Zipper said.