A Message of Rebirth

Hope and Devastation on the Cumberland Plateau

by Holly Haworth

It is nine in the morning, in the high elevations of the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee, and I am listening for the call of a small migratory songbird, the cerulean warbler. Along the washed-out coal road, there are dozens of wildflower species. The broad, low leaves of bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis, speckle the ground. Three species of trillium grow within twenty feet of each other—one with a luminous white flower hanging separate from the three triangular leaves, another with a deep red flower attached in the middle, another with a yellow and white flower. An indigo bunting alights on a branch in front of us and then flies.

My untrained ear hears what I would call “tons of birds,” many songs and pitches all blended together in a glorious chorus. But Than Boves—a graduate research assistant at the University of Tennessee who is studying the cerulean warbler—hears each bird separately, and he helps me pick them apart.

“There’s a cerulean singing down there,” he says. “Oh, and there’s a blackpoll. It’s a migrant. It’s that little metallic t-t-t-t-t-t. There’s the cerulean again: z-z-z-z-zeeeee.”

He does this all day—picks out a bird with his experienced ear and mimics its song back to me so that I can distinguish it from the rest. At first I cannot hear the z-z-z-z-zeeeee. But soon enough, I can pick out the cerulean warbler. We listen first, and then try to get a look.

“I’m gonna call him in, and I’m gonna try to see if he has a band and what color it is,” he says.

He props up a small set of speakers on a tree limb, which blasts the cerulean’s territorial call into the canopy. Within seconds, the warbler we just heard swoops down toward us. Than quickly points his binoculars upward and lies back onto the slope, his baseball cap sliding off his head as he attempts to make an identification.

He and his team are studying Dendroica cerulea’s rapid population decline. They tagged forty warblers last year and will monitor their return to the breeding ground this year. It’s now early May, and the birds are just returning from a winter spent farther south, in Venezuela or Columbia or Peru. On their long flight north each year, they reach the Cumberland Plateau saying this is the place.

The birds require large stands of deciduous hardwood forests for their nesting grounds, which the plateau offers. The area—part of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area (WMA)—also offers a unique mix of tulip poplars, white oaks, and sugar maples, which Than says the warblers seem to prefer.

I look through the binoculars and focus the lenses so that the warbler comes into view. It is small, its head the color of faded denim, and it wears a distinctive “necklace” of a darker blue around its white neck. This one also wears bands of silver and green on its legs.

Logging and mining on the plateau have depleted and fragmented the warbler’s habitat, and seventy percent of the population has vanished in the past three decades. But a Lands Unsuitable for Mining petition that the State of Tennessee submitted to the Office of Surface Mining in 2010 could protect 67,000 acres of ridgeline in the North Cumberland WMA, which would be a boon to the rapidly declining warbler and the many species like it that depend on the habitat.

The North Cumberland WMA is comprised of several smaller WMAs, including the Royal Blue, Sundquist, and New River WMAs, as well as the Emory River conservation easements that were obtained by The Nature Conservancy as part of 2007’s “Connecting the Cumberlands” initiative, led by then-Governor Phil Bredesen. The initiative—which created a 300-square-mile wildlife corridor—was the largest conservation transaction in Tennessee since the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Nature Conservancy deemed the Cumberland Plateau the eighth most important habitat in the world. I soon see why. Before the morning has passed, Than has helped me identify a Tennessee warbler, a hooded warbler (the color of yellow mustard, it says wheeta-wheeta-wheeteo), a scarlet tanager, an American redstart, a Blackburnian warbler, a goldfinch, a black-and-white warbler, a red-eyed vireo, and a rose-breasted grosbeak—more bird species than I’ve ever identified. Each one is like an awakening to me, a new awareness of beauty. In the afternoon, Than circles the territory to make identifications. I look up into the canopy with my binoculars until the layers of birdsong engulf me, and I am lulled to sleep in the soft understory.

* * * * *

It is now early November, and the plateau is not the lush and dense forest full of birdsong and bloodroot that it was in May. It hangs drearily under the long shadow of mountaintop removal coal mining, gutted by resource extraction. It is a barren land rising up with twisted trees against a slate gray sky.

The lush early summer foliage showed me what must be saved, the richness and bounty of the forest. Now that the trees are bare of leaves, it is easier to see what has been lost already, the damage that’s been done.

Environmentalist Chris Irwin—who has spent countless hours looking at devastation in the area from logging and strip mining—and Grant Mincy—a graduate student in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of Tennessee, who has spent a lot of time studying various species in the watershed—are leading me on a tour of destruction.

We wind and snake up a gravel road, and I look out the window at a place that is ancient but seems to be falling away beneath me. Spilled coal is scattered along the sides of the road. At a bend, a sign says National Coal Corporation.

We get out and walk along a ridgeline, through mud. I fall behind, listening to the soft pat of rain on fallen leaves. I stand still in a sea of trees; the earth seems full of sorrow. We reach a deep gash, where a swath of trees has been cut and dragged off the slope. The trunk of a tree left standing is ripped and shredded on one side. Then, at the end of the ridge, we look down into a valley of orange-red mud.

“One of the biggest landslides I’ve seen,” says Chris.

We stand and take it in: the ridge above the valley and the ridge on the other side of us have been cleared of trees. Clearcutting is the first step of removing a mountain for its coal. Landslides like this are the first of a series of unravelings that result.

“This is the kind of habitat fragmentation that’s threatening to send migratory songbirds into extinction,” says Grant, looking out.

We turn around and walk back, then we head down the mountain. At a small creek, Grant stops to take a conductivity reading, which the EPA uses as a general measure of stream health. Since it is based on geology, conductivity is used as a benchmark for a specific region. For most parts of Appalachia, the EPA has determined that substantial aquatic life impacts occur as conductivity exceeds 300 microsiemens (µS) per centimeter, and that conductivity exceeding 500 µS/cm suggests impairment. Grant’s reading on the creek is 1,100 µS/cm.

Below, the New River, which cuts through the middle of the petition area, is swelling fast. We arrive at a bend in the river and walk out across the sandy bank. The rain is cold, the water brown. In dark arcs along the bank are black chunks and bits of coal that have washed down from the mines above. At another stream we cross, the water runs rust, the color of acid mine drainage caused by the oxidation of iron pyrite, fool’s gold. Chris tells me that the Southern Appalachians are “the Saudi Arabia of water.” He is outraged that we are destroying our highland watersheds for a few minutes of power. In these streams is the greatest diversity of freshwater fish and mollusks found anywhere in the nation. Thirty-one species of mussels have been found here, of which seven are endangered, including the Cumberland elktoe, Cumberlandian combshell, Cumberland bean, and littlewing pearly. Fish like the threatened blackside dace, Phoxinus cumberlandensis, thrive within this watershed. These are the things that can be saved.

* * * * *

After the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) passed in 1977, the Department of the Interior formed the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) to enforce the Act. By the early 1980s, though, OSM had begun the process of granting regulatory primacy to the states. Tennessee was given primacy but was not able to adequately manage the program, so the state legislature repealed the law and sent the regulatory program back to OSM in 1984. Since then, unlike every other Appalachian state, Tennessee’s mining has been regulated by the OSM. Therefore, unlike any other state in Appalachia, Tennessee is able to petition the federal government to designate certain lands as unsuitable for mining, as allowed by section 522 of the SMCRA.

Unsuitability is a categorization that deems large swaths of land unsuitable for mining, based on five criteria. It is up to the petitioner to submit a petition that “tends to establish” the unsuitability of the area. It is then up to the OSM to analyze the allegations—which includes completing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)—in order to determine whether it believes a designation of unsuitability is warranted. Finally, it is up to OSM to pass a decision of whether the unsuitability will be granted, not granted, or partially granted. Currently, the OSM is completing the EIS and is expected to release a draft of its decision sometime next year.

There have been several successful Lands Unsuitable for Mining petitions in Tennessee, beginning with the Rock Creek petition filed by the Bledsoe County chapter of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM, formerly called Save Our Cumberland Mountains), which was designated in 1987. The watershed and viewshed of the Fall Creek Falls State Park were designated unsuitable in 2000, a victory that protected the watershed of the highest waterfall in the eastern United States.

Citing mountaintop removal coal mining as its major threat, the Southern Environmental Law Center placed the Cumberland Plateau on its 2011 list of ten most endangered places in the South. The Cumberland is on the precipice, existing in that tenuous place between vibrancy and collapse, between hope and devastation. The mountains have a long history of giving. Everything about them pull at the heart, the exploitation they have endured even as they remain rich with life, with healing plants and migratory songbirds. It seems that with just enough more threads pulled loose, the fragile forest may unravel once and for all. Protecting 500 miles of ridgeline from mining is a good start to saving some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world. It is a good thread for us to hold on to.

* * * * *

I could’ve gone my whole life not knowing of the cerulean warbler. It is tiny, ephemeral, seemingly insignificant. But once I learned of its presence high in the trees, I came to feel that it was keeping the forest intact, that the mountains would not be whole without the cerulean. I learned of how it eats insects, thus protecting the hardwood trees it nests in. I came to feel that its return in spring, coinciding with the emergence of caterpillars and other insects, would be a message of rebirth for the forest. And it’s true: migratory songbirds are indicators of ecosystem health. As their numbers decline, we can assume that the ecosystem’s health is failing.

So now we watch the numbers. We wait for a Lands Unsuitable for Mining designation. And we have a glint, a glimmer of hope that this place may yet be saved, that the cerulean warbler will say, again and again, this is the place

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