Beach Grass: Bringing the Seashore to the Mountains

July 1, 2000

Some problems seem insurmountable. One such problem has to do with healing broad expanses of black, sterile mining wastes that shroud much of southern West Virginia. More than 181,000 ac. of abandoned, scarred, and ugly mine lands continue to pollute rivers and streams as they desperately await reclamation. The costs involved, however, are astronomical. Official estimates put the total cost of reclamation at $5.6 billion, a sum that defies solution.

In addition to high cost, conventional reclamation is frustrated by a lack of soil to be spread upon sites before planting. Strangely enough, this is more a problem of deep mining than strip mining. Wastes pulled from deep mines are coarse, droughty, infertile materials that end up in narrow valleys where topsoil to cover them is scarce. Alternative revegetation methods for the black wastes have always confounded reclamation specialists, while stripped areas can be spread out in the valley floor and be readily revegetated.

Without top dressing, gob (material left behind from the mining and coal purification process) absorbs summer heat to the point where native plants, struggling to become established, wither and die. Consequently, plantings just seem futile, leaving scores of eroding, gray-faced mountains to greet the public for generations.

Enter Sam Depue, district soil conservationist at the Princeton, WV, office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). He is a tireless worker with an inquiring mind and a determination to challenge the impossible.

Depue’s job involves reclamation of abandoned mine lands, and he knew that without a better way to heal these worst acreages, they would not be reclaimed in his lifetime.

In his search, Depue learned that Doug Perry, a scientist for the Agriculture Research Service in Beckley, WV, in the 1970s had initiated a small experiment with Cape American beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata) that seemed to have characteristics necessary to overcome problems found on coal wastes. Perry had obtained sprigs of this beach grass from the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) and planted them on dry, shaley soils along US Route 460 near Princeton, WV, and in Bland County, VA. His first planting was at Possum Hollow Road.

Cape American beach grass stabilizes sand dunes and areas of shifting sands and serves as a barrier against ocean storms for the broad beaches of the East Coast, from Maine to North Carolina. This plant is sustained after being continually buried in an environment of shifting sands, similar in many ways to conditions found on coal-waste gob piles, and critically withstands severe heat, such as that produced on coal wastes.

It also adapts to inland roadbanks, abandoned gravel pits, and other disturbed areas. It is robust, is easy to handle, and spreads rapidly, having more leaves and thicker culms (stems) than common beach grasses. Importantly, it was found to reduce wind velocity near the ground where it traps wind-blown sand. New sand deposits build the dunes and nourish further plant growth.

The more Depue learned about this amazing plant, the more convinced he became that he had a winner, especially after recognizing that characteristics of sand dunes and gob piles are so similar: They are extremely hot under sunshine, lack organic matter, and have very little biological activity. Records show that the grass thrives in temperatures ranging from -20ºF to more than 100ºF, as well as under ice and snow and during extreme drought. What’s more, experimental plantings along US 460 adapted quite well to southern West Virginia.

In summer 1983, Depue joined with the SCS Plants Materials Committee of West Virginia to observe the planting along US 460 and found plants thriving and expanding. In fall 1984, he initiated a trial of his own by removing a dozen sprigs of beach grass from the stand and transplanting them near the top of the gob pile at Jacob’s Fork, 45 mi. south in McDowell County.

At the time of his experimental plantings in 1990, he was excited. “If they work as well on a larger scale as they did with the first few plants, we’ll be able to cover those eyesores at a minimum of cost, as compared to conventional grading, topsoiling, and planting.” His objectives to heal the mountains of slag, stop pollution, and beautify the hillsides seemed in sight. If this could be done at reduced costs, then greater acreage could be healed on limited budgets.

I had the firsthand experience of seeing for myself what had been accomplished with the beach grass at Jacob’s Fork six years after Depue’s initial transplanting.

All-terrain-vehicle activity had destroyed some of the experiment, but progress was obvious. The normal monotonous gray and black slag piles were mottled in green and brown. At a distance we saw a tint of green covering the ugliness. Up close, evidence was abundant that this once-sterile site was alive with activity. Sprouts of beach grass were popping up here and there, and leaves and other organic matter were accumulating. Deer tongue and other native plants were invading the wasteland.

This site had been devoid of plant life for more than 20 years, with little or no sign of recovering through natural processes, as would be expected on almost any other type of abused area. The refuse pile was a 1:1 slope, with no place to spread the refuse or no soil to cover it. Engineers estimated it would cost $80,000 to spread and cover the site if it was possible. But a small test planting had demonstrated that Cape American beach grass had the potential to survive and foster colonization.

NRCS thought enough of the results in this small test area that an exhibit was developed to convey the promise of these plantings to mine operators, reclamation specialists, and the public. NRCS then decided it was time for a larger test.

In April 1991, the SCS Plants Material Center in New Jersey furnished 50,000 Cape American beach grass sprigs for a 2-ac. trial planting at Jacob’s Fork. These were planted on steep coal-refuse waste piles to stabilize and provide colonization sites for seeds of local native plants. Two stems were placed in hand-dug holes at intervals of 2 ft. An ounce of Osmocote 10-10-10 fertilizer was placed in each hole before planting. By October, 90% of the plants had survived, producing an average of five stems per plant.

It required 360 man-hours of labor, 50,000 sprigs, and 1,500 lb. of fertilizer to establish a 2-ac. planting on a 100% slope at a total cost of $7,500. The estimated cost of treating the site conventionally by grading, topsoiling, seeding, and mulching was $125,000. Depue pointed out that the goal was not to create a solid beach grass stand, but to modify the environment enough to permit native plants to colonize the area and bring succession.

After five growing seasons, the area has been colonized by indigenous species. Forbs and woody plants have established themselves. On the edge of the gob pile close to a woodland is an average of 41 stems per 100-ft.2 plot. Ragweed and joe-pye weed are the principal forbs, while blackberry and smooth sumac are the principal woody species. Beach grass has a 26% survival rate with an average of six to seven culms per plant at a 2-ft. spacing. In the center of the pile, 100-150 ft. away from the wooded area, an average of 14 stems are thriving. Stickweed and ragweed are the main forbs, while black birch is the only woody species. Here beach grass has a 57% survival rate and 18 stems per plant.

No supplemental fertilizer or irrigation was provided during the entire test-planting project. Depue’s test plots established that 2-ft. spacings would close in two years and beach grass would trap leaves and colonize herbaceous native plants in three to four years.

When Depue and I traveled back to Jacob’s Fork in 1992, plantings had begun to take hold and showed great promise on a wasteland that had laid barren for 20 years. Sprigs were thriving and expanding under the downward drifts of the slag, but organic matter was accumulating around plants and forming a source of materials that stopped erosion, held water, cooled the surface, and began to look better. Native seeds were captured in the litter and had begun to sprout.

What really excited me was the sight of half a dozen thriving Princess trees (Paulownia tomentosa) that had volunteered into the site and had grown 5 or 6 ft. It is an excellent timber tree with beautiful spike-like blossoms that come each May, and it is indicative of the unexpected rewards that can come from healing these wastes. The trees may yet stunt or die during a particularly hot summer, but it is possible that a forest of these trees will one day stand there. If so, it will surely lead to further plantings on other sites that had been partially reclaimed.

When Depue made his first beach grass planting on these steep, volatile, and foreboding slopes, he wondered whether perpetually drifting wastes would doom his project. Materials moved downward without ceasing, covering and killing all struggling native plants, but hope was renewed when this coastal immigrant thrived after being covered by popping up a distance away. In a period of six years, sprigs spread 6-8 ft. after being buried time after time in the dark, black slag.

This experiment has proven to Depue and NRCS that we can economically obtain cover on gob piles that have eroded, polluted streams, and marred the landscape for decades. Until a plant was found that was heat-tolerant, was immune to being buried by drifting wastes, and could cool the surface by shading, native plants did not move onto the site. Until Cape American beach grass was tried, the only method that proved successful was expensive grading and topsoiling. With the discovery of beach grass, limited areas of access for spreading can be planted quickly and cheaply.

This plant was brought from sandy beaches to the mountains, and then to the sands of Ft. Bragg, NC. The US Army learned of Depue’s work, contacted him, sent observers, and in 1995 carried out an experimental planting on sandy and dry drop zones. NRCS gave Ft. Bragg 2,000 plants, and the army reports that the plantings are established and doing very well.

It is reassuring to witness the initiative and desire that Depue and others maintain in seeking new solutions to age-old problems. Surely we are all the winners in such efforts.
About the Author

Robert Bowers

Guest author Robert R. Bowers, formerly of the West Virginia Soil Conservation Agency, frequently writes about natural resources issues.