It looked like a scene of wanton destruction on federal land under the watchful eye of a U.S. forester. Two bulldozers plowed up and down a hillside, pushing over anything in their path. Shrubs and small trees snapped under the dozers’ force like kindling. On the barren ground where the machines had been, December rain pooled in muddy tire tracks. A single young oak that had been spared seemed, if anything, to accent the mayhem.

“You folks have boots? Want to get muddy?”

That was Patrick Angel, leader of this tour. Angel is a scientist who has made his career with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, a little-celebrated unit in the Department of the Interior. For 25 years, he oversaw the process that may represent humans’ best attempt at total annihilation of land: strip mining and mountaintop-removal mining of coal. He told coal companies to do one thing when they were done with a site: Pack the remaining rubble as tightly as possible, and plant grass – the only type of plant he trusted to hold the ground in place.

Then, in 2002, Angel realized something was wrong. The big, productive, life-nurturing forests of Appalachia weren’t just slow to come back; they weren’t coming back, period.

Nearly 1.5 million acres, an area larger than Delaware, that should have had trees were little more than weedy fields. It was an ecological disaster, and Angel helped create it. “There is a tremendous amount of guilt,” he said.

Angel, born and raised in the eastern Kentucky mountains, has spent the rest of his career undoing the damage. That process is what he was showing off in southeastern Kentucky. After the dozers’ demo job, an even larger machine would drag two massive, fanglike shanks that would rip open the ground in a checkerboard pattern, loosen soil and make room for growing tree roots. Then small armies of volunteers would descend on the site and plant tulip trees, oaks, pines and chestnuts. What was once a forest brimming with diverse life, before becoming a denuded strip mine and then a weedy rubble pile, would be a forest again.

Thanks in large part to Angel, 70, more than 187 million trees have been planted on about 275,000 acres of former mines, an area more than six times the size of the District of Columbia. This represents one of the most ambitious restoration efforts in one of the country’s most devastated places. It is led not by big name-brand environmental groups but by people from the mountains, operating with small budgets and with little fanfare or recognition.

“When I first heard about these reforestation efforts,” said Kathy Newfont, a professor of Appalachian history at the University of Kentucky, “it was one of the most hopeful things I’d heard about the region in decades.”

But Angel has even bigger ambitions: to put not just the forest but the broken Appalachian economy back together. How much can forests revive one of America’s most troubled places?

•••

You may know it as coal country. Less celebrated, perhaps, is that Appalachia is also forest country.

One of the world’s great forests, in terms of biodiversity and complexity, far outshines the more famous sequoias of the West. The region harbors more salamander species than anywhere on Earth. It is also a global hot spot for freshwater mussel diversity. Migratory birds such as the cerulean warbler come to Appalachian forests to breed. The most comprehensive survey to date has estimated that 100,000 species may live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Once railroads snaked their way into the mountains in the late 1800s, the big trees were quickly plundered. Eastern Kentucky may have once exported as much hardwood lumber as any place on Earth. After the trees were gone, industry barons turned to the black mineral under the ground. For generations, Appalachian coal fed and housed the people of eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and other coalfield states. It gave people dignity and work and something to offer the nation and the world; it bound families and communities together. Coal, Newfont said, “is not just an economy, no more than military service is just an economy. It also involves all the other aspects of one’s life: families and community.”

But coal also has a dark side. Coal mining has pulverized eastern Kentucky’s land, poisoned its water, cracked the foundations of its buildings and killed its people. It has accelerated climate change. And unlike Alaskan or Texan oil, coal has not returned riches; the coal counties of Appalachia are among the poorest in the nation.

Angel grew up in one of the state’s innumerable hollers, where wooded mountainsides plunge precipitously toward tiny creeks. Relatives worked in logging and mining.

Angel pursued a different path, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in forestry, and landing back in eastern Kentucky in 1973 as a coal industry regulator. At that time, strip mining was a Wild West. “There were wildcatters, stealing 20 to 30 thousand dollars of coal in a weekend,” Angel said.

Putting the land back together was often an afterthought. Loose rocks tumbled down steep mountains below where people lived. Angel once pulled a corpse out of a house crushed by mine waste. Something had to be done.

That something was the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. SMCRA set permitting standards and required restoring the land to its “approximate original contour” – whatever was left had to bear some resemblance to what was there before mining. It also created a federal agency, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, or OSMRE. Angel joined the agency and received badge No. 2. In May 1978, Angel learned that a mine in Harlan County was threatening to dump a landslide onto a house. He and his mentor (badge No. 1) figured they would set an example.

Like old-time revenue officers heading into the backwoods to arrest moonshiners, Angel and his colleagues faced angry miners used to operating with impunity. The regulators were shot at. Their vehicles were vandalized. “There’s coal folks who don’t like anyone with a uniform,” Angel said. “I can’t tell you how many times a gun has been pulled out in my presence.”

But after a few years, the wildcatters were mostly gone, and landslides from active mines mostly stopped. Coal’s environmental devastation, however, was just beginning.

That’s because a new technology would soon make plain old strip mining look quaint. In the 1980s and 1990s, many mining companies turned to mountaintop removal, a hyper-efficient mix of explosives, draglines and dozers.

SMCRA allowed mountaintop removal, requiring only that the land be restored to its original cover, unless it was put to a “higher and better use.” But the law left that term undefined, and industry, landowners and regulators alike agreed that a pasture, perhaps with a few cows on it, fit the bill. In fact, Angel and his colleagues practically required companies to pack the rubble down and blast it with grass seed, a process called hydro-seeding. Since mountaintop removal began, some 500 mountaintops have been demolished, according to a study by the nonprofit Appalachian Voices. The majority now sport grassy balds, an ecosystem rare in pre-mining Appalachia. “Smooth it out and turn it green” – this became the mantra that Angel and other field officers followed, said Brent Wahlquist, OSMRE’s director during the George W. Bush administration.

•••

But a quiet revolt was brewing. Academic foresters, many from the mountains themselves, were growing increasingly horrified at mining’s aftermath. Invasive autumn olive shrubs and the occasional black locust tree were among the only plants that managed to eke out a living in the hard-packed rubble. Worse still, lespedeza, a woody legume from Asia, had spread rapidly, filling lopped-off mountains with thickets of prickly, inedible stalks.

James Burger, a researcher at Virginia Tech, calculated the rate of ecological succession on these sites. “I estimated through my work that it would literally take centuries for native forests” full of oaks, walnuts, hickories and tulip poplars to return, he said.

Donald Graves, a forestry professor at the University of Kentucky, Burger and others reached out to Angel and his colleagues. Angel had settled into midcareer by then. He no longer served mine-closure orders himself; he now oversaw state regulators. He was raising five kids and running a 100-acre sheep farm outside London in his spare time. The last thing he wanted was the burden of considering that everything he’d done for the past 20 years was wrong. Sorry, he said, I’m busy.

So the scientists took a different approach. In 1996, Graves and some students got permission from a mining company called Star Fire, operating on a mountain east of Hazard, to try something that was usually not allowed, because officers such as Angel were convinced it was unsafe: plant trees in the rubble left from the mining. They laid out square plots and subdivided them into small plantations of saplings of different native trees: tulip poplar, white ash, white pine, white oak – a checkerboard forest. Instead of the smooth golf course-like landscapes the industry had perfected, rocks had been shoved into irregular, car-size mounds. Graves showed it to Angel. “My comment to him was, ‘Man, this is ugly reclamation,’ ” Angel says.

But in 2002, Angel went back. On his way up to the top, he saw rock that had been pulverized and shoved aside to expose coal. Massive machines plied the seams, shoveling coal into trucks that trundled up and down graded, denuded hillsides. Explosions exposed new seams for exploitation. Where the company had mined, it had left behind a landscape of angular plateaus and open prairies alien to the Appalachians – “it feels like North Dakota,” Angel said.

Then Angel got to Graves’ forest. The trees were practically leaping out of the ground. Growing pines send out a new spray of horizontal branches each year, and Angel could see that they were putting on feet of height annually. He thought with despair of the million acres of grass – grass he and his colleagues had all but ordered to be planted. Grass that was now holding the mountains captive. “The lightbulb came on,” Angel says. “I said, ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’ ”

•••

The guilt was almost overwhelming. Angel abandoned the farm where he lived in the rolling hills west of London. He went to the University of Kentucky and, in 2003, signed up to pursue a Ph.D. In the hallway, he encountered Chris Barton, a young forestry professor studying whether regrowing forests could address another of eastern Kentucky’s problems: frequent flooding.

Barton, too, had been a skeptic when he learned about Graves’ tree-planting scheme. But he watched the trees grow, year after year, putting on as much – or, incredibly, sometimes more – wood as the same tree planted in native soil would have. When Graves retired, Barton took over the research at Star Fire. He and his students have tracked how many trees died: about a third of those planted (a decent rate for forestry). Some now top 50 feet. They’ve measured the water that flows down from the mountaintop. The trees catch or absorb more than half of the rain that falls on them, meaning that much less flows through the mine rubble and leaches salts and toxins into streams.

Angel eventually created a position in the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to work full time on reforesting old strip jobs and mountaintop-removal sites – undoing what he had spent his career doing. In 2004, he, Barton and others organized the first meeting of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative in Stonewall State Park, W.Va. Regulators, academic scientists, environmentalists and coal miners agreed: Trees should be planted on mines.

Within a few years, nearly all new mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania were reforested upon completion. “For the first time in my career, I saw OSM get favorable press,” Angel said. “What could be better than a 9-year-old planting a tree?”

Ironically, in Angel’s home state, the rate of reforestation has been much lower; Angel and Barton blame state officials whom they believe have not supported the idea. When asked why few Kentucky landowners had reforested mined land, Jeffrey Baird, director of Kentucky’s Division of Mine Permits, said, “We cannot make them plant trees.”

On Feb. 24, 2009, with the nation facing the biggest financial crisis since the Depression, the new president, Barack Obama, announced his intention to battle the specter of mass unemployment with so-called green jobs. No place needed jobs more than the coalfields, where mechanization and cheap natural gas were putting miners out of work by the thousands. Barton heard Obama’s speech and called Angel. Within a few days they had written a proposal: $422 million for a government-funded conservation army to plant 125 million trees on mines that had been reclaimed the “wrong” way. To undo the damage, the compacted ground would need to be shaken loose by bulldozers dragging massive metal shanks. The work would be expensive: $1,500 to $2,000 per acre. But if money could be found in Washington, it could employ people in Appalachia – lots of them. Former miners would be paid to do what they do best: operate heavy machinery and move earth. Others would plant trees. The trees would clean up the water and take carbon out of the air. The project was “shovel-ready” – literally.

•••

Months later, while out in the field, Angel got a call from Van Jones, an environmental activist whom Obama had tapped as a special adviser; he had planted the phrase “green jobs” into Obama’s lexicon. For an hour and a half, Angel talked with someone a step away from the president about armies of Appalachians ripping ground and planting trees on spent mines. “I told him it’s akin to what the Roosevelt administration did during the Depression. It’s a CCC-model green jobs program for West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. He said, ‘West Virginia?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘We are looking for something like this to do in West Virginia.’ ”

Days later, after criticism about past statements he had made, Jones resigned. The notion of the country digging out of its financial mess through a massive green jobs program died, too.

•••

In December 2016, the Obama administration published a revision to regulations that all but required reforestation for surface-mine reclamation.

By then, though, the country had elected the candidate who told cheering coal miners, “You’d better get ready because you’re going to be working your asses off.” One of President Donald Trump’s first acts, supposedly to reward the coal miners and industry leaders who supported him, was to kill the new rule. His administration has since rolled back other regulations and gutted environmental programs that were accused of killing coal.

Yet more than three years into the Trump administration, coal jobs haven’t come back. Trump’s promise of a coal revival is “crap,” Angel said. But Angel understands why his neighbors supported the reality-TV star from New York. “It was the first time in a long time they’d heard anything encouraging about their industry,” he said.

Still, the tree planting continues. On one Saturday, the Sierra Club, Boy Scout troops, several classes’ worth of college students and a loose-knit collective called Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation showed up to the site the dozer had cleared months earlier. Angel stood before them, holding a spindly thing so puny you could barely call it a tree: just one thin stick attached to a few wisps of root. “I’m Patrick Angel from the federal government, and I’m going to teach you how to plant trees,” he said. He picked up an orange metal bar known as a dibble, made a small hole in the bare dirt and put the tree in. He warned the planters to avoid J-rooting, which forces roots upward against their gravitational inclination. He used his boot to push soil snug.

“Any questions?”

There were none.

The volunteers fanned out over the muddy ground, each pair armed with a dibble bar and a bucket of seedlings.

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