Disappearing Destinations: 37 Places in Peril and What Can Be Done to Help Save Them

Highland Scenic Highway
MOUNTAINTOP MINING: One of the most biologically diverse regions of the world is being blasted away (courtesy, West Virginia Scenics)

This area has been heralded as the most biologically diverse temperate region anywhere on earth. Around each curve here the vegetation alone astounds, from boreal, cove, and hardwood forests—blooming dogwood, tulip poplar, and redbud are among the area's beauty queens—to heath and grassy balds. Some 2,000 species of Appalachian flora have been identified, two hundred of which are said to be native to and entirely confined to this complex ecohub. Its multihued tangles of unkempt rhododendron, mountain laurel and azalea are near mythical, its ginseng and morel mushrooms coveted worldwide.

This virtual island of biodiversity is a geological oddity. Life was chased southward by an advancing ice sheet 10,000 years ago, and where the glaciers stopped, the 50 million-year-old mixed mesophytic forest remained—a vestige of the great forests that once dominated the northern hemisphere. These mountaintop forests packed with Fraser fir and fragrant balsam, like a vast green carpet tossed onto the earth and left lumpy and imperfect, give way to headwater streams and tributaries that strike out across the landscape like a thousand bolts of lightning.

But what ice and rock failed to disrupt back then is now being scoured by coal collecting with a crude technique called "mountaintop removal/valley fill," whose operations has become commonplace over the past decade. Vast contiguous coal beds deposited between 250 and 300 million years ago, with billions of tons of high-quality, low-sulfur spoils, lie just below the mountaintops. Where mountaintop removal thwacks and booms, green turns to gray, round to flat, and majestic to messy as bulldozers and oversized dragline scoopers roar to and fro in clouds of dirt and smoke. Downhill are steep valley creases where the trees and rocks blasted with dynamite from the apex are indelicately heaved. So far, over a million acres of mountaintops have been cleared and thousands of miles of streams have been buried.


Published: 17 Jul 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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