DUBOIS, Pa. — A group of wildlife technology students at Penn State DuBois have contributed to reclaiming some area mine land while gaining valuable, real-world lessons. Lecturer in Wildlife Technology Carrie O’Brien took two sections of her class to a site in the Moshannon State Forest in Elk County in late April to help plant trees in a large-scale effort to reforest a 35-acre portion of public ground.
The reclamation project the students volunteered with is a partnership between the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC), a non-profit conservation organization headquartered in Pittsburgh. The project is also funded, in part, by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
“Our goal is to return mine lands to a productive state,” said Laura Bray, a program coordinator with PEC.
Bray noted that the Moshannon forest site was first reclaimed when mining halted there decades ago, using traditional reclamation techniques. The site was initially revegetated with cool-season grasses and some non-native pines that are stunted in growth. The Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative refers to sites like this as “Legacy Sites.” Using the Forestry Reclamation Approach, developed by the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, more favorable site conditions for tree growth will be created.
“Due to heavy soil compaction caused by traditional reclamation methods, many of these sites do not become productive forests, and in some cases, trees weren’t planted at all," Bray explained. “In other cases, you have non-native trees. So, we identify these legacy mine lands and essentially, we re-reclaim them using the Forestry Reclamation Approach to restore forest cover.”
DCNR Oil and Gas Forester Evan Hoffman further explained that highly compacted soil, the result of methods formerly used to cover up old strip mines, makes for very poor growing conditions. With soil packed so tightly, root structures of most trees and other plants cannot gain a foothold.
Hoffman said, “We couldn’t get much to grow here on this site besides grass and clover. We want to vegetate these openings with some trees and provide more food and cover for the wildlife.”
The first step in getting those trees to grow is to loosen that compacted soil. To do so, workers employ bulldozers and excavators equipped with a tool known as a ripping shank, which works much like an oversized farm plow. Criss-crossing the plot with the shank plunging into the earth, they’re able to loosen eight-foot swaths with each pass, going up to three feet deep.
“They loosen the soil so the trees can grow and take root,” Bray said.
At this point, volunteers like the Penn State DuBois Wildlife Technology students come in and the tree planting begins. Graduates of this program qualify for careers in fields such as environmental conservation, wildlife conservation, forestry, fishery sciences, and more. Field work such as this could be part of their daily lives in the future, and volunteer opportunities like this help them to gain experience.
O’Brien said, “They get to see what’s going on right in their back yard, and that’s a really great experience. It’s great to have the students be part of this partnership with DCNR and PEC, to get involved in these partnerships, and to learn how to plant trees and why we plant trees. They’re also getting the chance to network with other professionals in the field and be a part of a really fascinating project that will provide great habitat down the road.”
Representatives from PEC and DCNR instructed the students on best practices for planting the trees using dibble bars, special tools used by foresters that quickly and efficiently pierce the ground, creating a hole for the sapling to be placed. Such tools help greatly with larger reforestation efforts such as this, where nearly 23,800 trees will be planted on approximately 35 acres. The remaining 20 acres of this 55-acre site will be left for grass lands, which benefits wildlife in other ways, such as providing different types of wildlife habitat. Students learned from these conservation professionals how to best place the trees for optimum growth, how to use the tools involved, and more.
Wildlife Technology student Eli Depaulis of York, Pennsylvania, said of the experience, “Better to learn by doing. It’s one thing to learn in a book, but to come out and do it hands-on and actually experience it is definitely a beneficial reinforcement to our classroom learning.”
Classmate Bryant Miloser of Marion Center, Pennsylvania, added, “There is a lot of extra opportunity that we have in this program to learn things hands-on. I think we remember so much more when we are out here learning like this.”
On this day, the site was being planted with 500 white pine, 500 quaking aspen, 100 red oaks and 250 black locusts, all donated from a DCNR nursery where they were grown from seedlings.
This is an effort not to be completed in one day, and the Wildlife Technology students were not able to finish up on their own. DCNR and PEC invite the public to volunteer for another planting day at the site scheduled for Saturday, May 4. More information and registration is available online at https://pecpa.org/moshannon, or contact Laura Bray at 412-481-9400, extension 212, or [email protected].