Chestnuts may grow on trees, but coal does not:
Field Trip by Coal Creek and Elk Valley students to
National Coal Corporation’s Zeb Mountain surface mine

13 May 2009

Did you know that 2.3 pounds of coal per hour are used
in the production and viewing of this web page? 
Coal Creek and Elk Valley students do.

So what do Coal Creek and Elk Valley students have in common?  When Welsh miners lost their jobs in Coal Creek to the convict lease system in 1877, some of those miners and their families moved north along the railroad and settled in Elk Valley.  After more jobs were lost to the convict lease system in 1891, miners challenged the state of Tennessee over the practice during the Coal Creek War.  Miners from Elk Valley rallied to support the miners from Coal Creek in the fight to abolish the convict lease system in Tennessee.

Coal Creek and Elk Valley students planting
American chestnut seedlings at a mine site
prepared by the Forestry Reclamation
Approach (FRA) that exposes loose, rocky spoil
at ground surface

Students with American chestnut seedling

Students from Elk Valley and Coal Creek are reuniting for another mission, this time to restore the American chestnut.  Prior to the early 1900’s, the American chestnut was king of the Appalachian forest, but a blight carried by Chinese chestnuts killed most of the American chestnuts during the early part of the 20th century. 

For the past 25 years, the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) has been developing a hybrid that is 94% American chestnut and 6% Chinese chestnut.  The hybrid will retain the virtues of the American chestnut as a large forest tree with a sweet-tasting nut, but with the blight-resistance of its Chinese cousin.   

The Appalachian coal fields are at the center of the historical range of the American chestnut.  Furthermore, researchers have found that trees grow faster on mine sites reclaimed by leaving loose, rocky spoil exposed at ground surface than in a natural forest.  This new reclamation technique is called the Forestry Reclamation Approach (FRA) and mine sites prepared by this method are ideal locations for introducing the blight-resistant hybrids to the natural range of the American chestnut.

Through a grant from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM), TACF is researching options for planting the blight-resistant hybrids on FRA sites.  The two options being examined by TACF are direct seeding and the transplanting of bare-root seedlings grown in a nursery.  Pure American chestnuts are being used in the study because blight-resistant hybrid nuts will not be available for mass distribution for 5 to 10 years. 

For the past three months, the environmental club at Lake City Middle School and 7th and 8th graders from Elk Valley School have been growing pure American chestnuts in classroom nurseries to supplement the TACF study.  During their field trip to National Coal Corporation’s Zeb Mountain surface mine, students planted their potted American chestnut seedlings on ground that had been prepared by the FRA method of leaving loose, rocky spoil exposed at the surface.  They also planted bare-root American chestnut seedlings grown in the East Tennessee State Nursery at Delano for comparison with the transplanted potted seedlings. 

Office of Surface Mining's George Gunn
demonstrates the GPS mapping
system to the students

Digging to plant seedling

The loose, rocky ground may look rough to us, but it’s ideal for growing trees.  Rainfall infiltrates rapidly into the loose, rocky spoil where it irrigates tree roots and there is no competition from grass for moisture and nutrients.  After these trees produce nuts, wildlife will spread them to surrounding areas.


Read Bob Fowler's story published in
the Knoxville News Sentinel

Another advantage of the Forestry Reclamation Approach is that rainfall that infiltrates to irrigate tree roots reduces runoff from the site.  What water that runs off must first pass through a sedimentation pond to settle suspended soil particles. 

Clarified water that discharges from the ponds is routinely sampled to verify that stringent water quality standards are being met so the mining operation does not adversely impact the surrounding environment.  Even with the heavy rains over the past few weeks, the sedimentation ponds at the site remained clear, verifying relatively little runoff from areas prepared by the Forestry Reclamation Approach. 

Further evidence that rainfall quickly soaks into the loose, rocky spoil is the fact that none of the students got muddy planting their chestnut seedlings.

Students examining the FRA site where
American chestnuts were planted by direct seeding
in 2008.  Despite recent heavy rains, the sedimentation
pond at the base of the area reclaimed by the Forestry
Reclamation Approach was clear, indicating that
rainfall infiltrates to irrigate tree roots,
rather than running off the site. 

A special “Thank You” goes out to the folks at National Coal Corporation.  We had to postpone the field trip on two prior occasions due to rain.  Despite the recent heavy rains, the roads were in excellent condition and the site was well-maintained.  We also want to thank the folks at OSM for assisting us with the trip and the planting of the American chestnut seedlings.

As a special treat, students got to see a “shot” put off.  According to Elk Valley teacher Vijaya Morton, “My students were in awe of the blasting they saw”. 



Students observed blasting to remove overburden
from the coal.  They also witnessed the safety
precautions taken and the sequence of alarms to
clear miners from the area prior to the blast.
Considering that over 60% of our electricity in
Tennessee comes from burning coal, mining and
reclamation are important lessons for students to study. 

Over 60% of our electricity in Tennessee comes from burning coal and the students got a first-hand look at what is involved in the mining process.  Mining coal in accordance with current standards requires extensive planning and coordination to enable the land to be reclaimed and restored to productive use.  Restoration of an American icon in the form of the American chestnut definitely fulfills that requirement.

Lake City teacher Denise Houdeschell said, “This was not your typical field trip.  I am so proud of my students for their hard work and not once did I hear a complaint.”

Click on images to view more photos
of the adventure of the students planting American chestnuts on Zeb Mountain:

Girls on rock

Seedlings grown
in classroom

Making nametags
for who
planted tree

OSM's Vic Davis
with bare root
American chestnut
grown in the state
nursery in Delano

Examining an
 planted by
direct seeding in
2008 by Elk Valley


Nothing like pizza
delivery to the top
of Zeb Mountain!

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