Appalachian coal mines and Argentine tree plantations

This spring 2017 semester, members of LCI’s Lab of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology (LLECB) have been tasked with exercising their science communication skills by preparing a brief presentation for the lab group with the theme “why my science matters.” After sharing and receiving feedback, presenters have honed their messages and created blog-posts to share their thoughts with a larger audience.

Appalachian coal mines and Argentine tree plantations

by Renee  Sanders

As a first year Environmental Sciences & Policy master’s student, finding my footing for my thesis research has taken me to an unexpected locale – Argentina. I have joined a massive research team, the Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) group, which focuses on bioenergy across the Americas. Specifically, I am studying communities in the Pampas of Argentina, an area of rolling plains and fertile soils with a landscape naturally dominated by espinal, which are savanna ecosystems with clumps of small trees (a peak at this landscape type can be seen in the top left photograph below). These grassland communities are experiencing significant land use change in the form of tree plantations, namely eucalyptus. This type of land conversion has been encouraged thanks to domestic Argentine policy, such as the Plantation Investment Law of 1999, which incentivizes tree plantations. Argentine policy favoring plantations came about from a desire to build a strong domestic timber market instead of relying on imported forest products for the country’s needs.

The economic benefit of these tree plantations is quite obvious, but there is more to the story: Plantations in Argentina are commonly established in grasslands, which struggle to support the needs of rapidly growing trees. Eucalyptus grows at a staggering rate in the Pampas, which provides a quick return on investments, but natural resources can be drained because of these plantations. Eucalyptus plantations use more water than the natural grasslands, and soils can become degraded by these fast-growing trees. Biodiversity takes a hit as well – unsurprisingly, many endemic grassland species, species existing only in a specific place, do not fare well in monoculture eucalyptus plantations. Research has been conducted in my study site showing the effects on endemic bird species; avifauna loses vital nesting habitat and food sources with the loss of grasslands.

Top left: Espinal savanna, the natural landscape of the Pampas region Top right: Mature eucalyptus plantation Bottom left: Mixed use farm with blueberry crop Bottom right: Managed pasture/annual crops. The two bottom photos show common traditional land uses seen in the Pampas. Photo credit: Colin Phifer

While all of this clearly deserves conservation attention, I find this particular scenario much more relatable than I could have imagined at first glance. I grew up in the heart of coal country in rural West Virginia, where I watched the natural world around me suffer. While tree plantations and coal mines are vastly different concepts, I see some similarities behind the mindsets of both practices. As tree plantations have proven to be lucrative in Argentina, community employment reflects the importance of the industry. One of my study sites, Ubajay, is completely entrenched in the plantation industry – one recent study showed that 77 percent of participants indicated that their primary source of income comes from tree plantations through working at a local plantation or sawmill. Anytime one sole industry is focused upon so intensely, I become a little leery. Watching the boom and bust of coal was not easy – Countless communities in West Virginia had employment focused solely on coal, much like plantation industry employment in Argentina. Then, as Appalachian coal was phased out with the rise in cheaper natural gas and improved environmental protections, entire communities went under.

I feel that my role in looking at these Argentine grassland communities is pivotal as I do have the background knowledge to see what is eventually inevitable – Communities cannot flourish indefinitely on one industry alone. I understand the plight of these communities. We are talking about locales without a plethora of employment options, and employment in plantations is the dominant opportunity, just as coal was in West Virginia. Individuals and families living in communities lacking diversified opportunities often rely on what works for right now – You have people who need jobs to put food on the table, and eucalyptus can provide that. Fair enough, but what happens the future when the environment fails to support those plantations, or a more lucrative energy option becomes available elsewhere, causing eucalyptus to no longer be a viable choice?

While it can be an incredibly difficult transition to diversify the economy, and perhaps even the identity, of a place, communities that thrive long-term cannot exist on one industry alone. I am eager to delve more into the perceptions residents have regarding sense of place as well. As the tree plantation market is still relatively new in the area, I hope to discover how sense of place has changed for long-term residents in these grassland communities. I myself can see the changes when I visit West Virginia. I certainly didn’t see mountain tops blasted off thanks to mountaintop removal as a young child, but it’s a prominent characteristic of the landscape now. Meadowlarks can now be spotted; the landscape changes have created a niche for them that was never there before the mountains were disturbed. And, sadly, I see towns all around my home that continue to look a little shabbier each time I visit as more people, especially young adults, continue to leave the area in search of better opportunities elsewhere. I feel that looking at the fallout of the Appalachian coal industry and what has become of once bustling communities, and considering putting in the work and investment to cultivate communities with a diverse array of employment opportunities. Having the foresight to create a diverse workforce that doesn’t depend exclusively on one industry that relies on the productive capabilities of the environment is critical for continued success in these grassland communities.

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