It looked like a scene of wanton destruction, all the more shocking for happening on federal land under the watchful eye of a U.S. forester. Two snarling yellow 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, cold 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 early-winter tour in 2018, occurring just hours before what would become the nation’s longest government shutdown brought his work to a frustrating halt.

Angel is a gregarious, grizzled scientist who has made his career with the 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 to date 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 very 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 had helped create it. “There’s a tremendous amount of guilt,” he says.

Angel, born and raised in the same eastern Kentucky mountains that have been devastated by mining, has spent the rest of his career undoing the damage. That process is what he was showing off here. 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 in southeastern Kentucky 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, it was one of the most hopeful things I’d heard about the region in decades.” — Kathy Newfont

“When I first heard about these reforestation efforts,” says 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.”

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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?

Appalachia is also forest country

You may know it as coal country. Less celebrated, perhaps, is that Appalachia is also forest country. Over hundreds of millions of years, one of the world’s great forests — one that, in terms of biodiversity and complexity, far outshines the more famous redwoods and sequoias of the West — assembled itself on the steep slopes and deep hollers of Appalachia. The region, encompassing parts of 13 states from Mississippi to New York, 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, many as yet undescribed, may live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone.

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, says Newfont, “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, as is well documented, 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 dangerous 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 nameless creeks. Relatives worked in logging and mining. Angel himself 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 says. Putting the land back together was often an afterthought. Loose rocks tumbled down steep mountains below which people lived. Angel once pulled a corpse out of a house crushed by mine waste. Something had to be done.

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That something was the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, passed in 1977. SMCRA (pronounced SMACK-rah) 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, Kentucky, 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. One was kidnapped. “There’s coal folks who don’t like anyone with a uniform,” Angel says. “I can’t tell you how many times a gun has been pulled out in my presence.”

“There’s coal folks who don’t like anyone with a uniform. I can’t tell you how many times a gun has been pulled out in my presence.” — Patrick Angel

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 side-of-the-mountain strip mining look quaint. In the 1980s and ’90s many mining companies turned to mountaintop removal, a hyper-efficient mix of explosives, draglines and dozers that undoes hundreds of millions of years of geology in minutes.

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, says Brent Wahlquist, OSMRE’s director during the George W. Bush administration.

The destructive effect of surface mining

But within the halls of coal-state universities, a quiet revolt was brewing. Academic foresters, many from the mountains themselves, were growing increasingly horrified at coal 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.

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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 says. To understand how singularly destructive surface mining has been, consider how quickly and vigorously trees have reclaimed abandoned farmland throughout the eastern United States. The Appalachian mine lands are a rare place where the human footprint has been heavy enough to extinguish the forest’s life force.

Oh my God, what have we done?” — Patrick Angel

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, Kentucky, 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, Kentucky, 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 kooky 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 sooty black mineral. Massive machines plied the seams, shoveling coal into trucks that trundled up and down graded, denuded hillsides in a grim, monotonous parade with no spectators. Unseen explosions exposed new seams for exploitation. Signs along the roadside warned of possible death from flying rocks and debris. 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 says.

Then Angel got to Graves’s 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 plainly 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?’ “

Fixing a bad policy

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 PhD. 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.

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Barton, too, had been a skeptic when he learned about Graves’s 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, West Virginia. Federal and state 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 says. “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. “It’s perplexing,” Angel says. When asked why few Kentucky landowners had reforested mined land, Jeffrey Baird, the 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 on national television 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.

The politics

In early September, 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.’ ” A few days later, after weeks of pummeling by right-wing critics 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.

Angel and Barton were discouraged but not demoralized. With whatever funding he could cobble together, Barton started hiring people to rip up ground and plant trees. The proposal eventually made its way to the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supplied a modest seed grant for a nonprofit, which ended up being called Green Forests Work. Angel and Barton set to work building a tree-planting economy from the ground up.

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They learned some hard lessons. Idled mining equipment and idled miners were needed only a few days a year, to rip ground and get it ready for trees, Nathan Hall, an eastern Kentuckian and one of GFW’s first hires, said. After that, what was needed was tree planters. Hall wanted to hire locals, but he was lucky to get 400 trees planted and have 70% survive, said; trained professionals could plant 1,000 and have 900 survive. Moreover, it was seasonal work that paid $12 an hour.

The idea of coal miners planting trees is insane.” Nathan Hall

“The idea of coal miners planting trees is insane,” Hall, who eventually left the organization for graduate school, says. Why would someone who once made $60,000 or even $100,000 a year do harder work for a fraction of the pay and no job security? The heavy machinery and fossil fuels needed for ripping the ground didn’t always help the cause. “People don’t want to pay for that,” Angel says. “They want to pay for trees. Trees are cheap.” Eastern Kentucky native Kylie Schmidt, who took over Hall’s position, faced other challenges. For one grant-funded program Green Forests Work carried out, only about one in 30 landowners she approached agreed to plant trees, she said. As of last year, the organization had reforested about 4,500 of the million estimated acres of spent mines — less than half of 1%.

Enters Trump

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 have not come back. Coal-fired power plants continue to shutter, and mining companies continue to go bankrupt. Trump’s promise of a coal revival is “crap,” Angel told me, with a bluntness rare for a federal employee, especially in this era. “It’s pie in the sky.” But Angel understands why his neighbors supported the blustery reality-TV star from New York. “It was the first time in a long time they’d heard anything encouraging about their industry,” he says.

The tree planting continues. On one Saturday in April, the Sierra Club, local 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 the previous December. Angel, wearing his Department of the Interior uniform with unironic pride, 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, orange 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. Angel moved among them, correcting technique here, encouraging there. After a couple of hours the group gathered and ate barbecue. Maurice Manning, a Pulitzer Prize finalist whose family hails from the eastern part of the state, produced a piece of paper, and Erik Reece, a University of Kentucky English professor, tried to get his students to gather around. Manning began reading “Planting Trees” by Wendell Berry, the famed Kentucky writer who has vividly decried the ravages of coal mining. This poem, though, was more hopeful. Manning resonantly intoned Berry’s words: “I return to the ground its original music.”

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Kentuckians plant trees

The students and Scouts packed into vans and departed, and the site didn’t look much different from when they arrived. Row upon row of forlorn twigs stuck up from the barren ground, disappearing into the distance. One had to imagine the trees reaching skyward over years, the understory finding its way in, the birds and the bees returning.

About 5,000 trees remained to be planted before the summer heat hit. Michael French, GFW’s director of operations, suggested hiring professional tree planters from out of state, but Angel saw an opportunity — if a modest one — to build a bit of homegrown Appalachian economy. He called Buddy Greenwell, a local jack-of-all-trades whom Angel had occasionally paid to clear brush. Angel hoped to help Greenwell start a tree-planting business that could free him from the vicissitudes of day labor and help him build a future. It was a bit of a stretch: Greenwell’s work with trees had mainly involved cutting them down, and insofar as he’d planted anything, it was Kentucky’s (supposed) No. 1 cash crop: marijuana.

… pretend it’s pot.” —  Patrick Angel

But Greenwell is “as strong as any man, as good a worker as any man,” Angel told me. On the drive out to the site the next morning, Angel counseled, mentored, guided. Upon arrival, he did what he has done hundreds of times: taught a person to plant a tree. “Swing the hoedad, put the tree in, stem up, roots down, no J-rooting, no hockey club rooting, fill the hole, push some dirt against it with your boot, you’re done, move on,” Angel instructed his disciple. “You’ve just made 38 cents. It’s possible to plant a thousand trees in a day.”

“I can plant that many marijuana plants in a day,” Greenwell said.

“Then pretend it’s pot.”

Greenwell scared up a crew and got the trees planted, Angel said later. When the job was done, Greenwell told Angel that it was the most money he’d ever made from a single gig. He’d be back next season for sure.

“Planting trees is not a panacea for Appalachia’s problems,” Angel said. Neither is anything else. If there were a panacea, it would have been found by now. Lord knows enough people have come in from elsewhere thinking they had one, and given up. Angel, who has set up benches where he can rest on his daily walks up the hill from the barn where he feeds his sheep, has not given up. He recently retired from the government and plans to continue leading tree plantings for Green Forests Work as a volunteer. “I can’t quit,” he says.

If there is going to be a new green economy in Appalachia, this is how it will happen: one relationship at a time — between people, between people and land — turning on “affection,” as Berry has written, aided from the outside, perhaps, but built from within. It won’t make headlines. But it just might help put eastern Kentucky back together again.

This story was supported by a grant from the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.