Coal River Mountain lies within the central hardwood region (CHR), a forest type comprised predominately of hardwoods as well as conifers such as pine, hemlock, and spruce. The CHR is the “largest and most extensive area of deciduous hardwoods in the world and represents a rich mixture of valuable tree species that is approaching the threshold of economic maturity” (Hicks, 73). The use of one term to explain the forest resources of this area, however, can be misleading due to the high diversity of the tree species.
Sandy Bottom. Photo by Sam McCreery.
This region is one of the most bioloically diverse temperate forest regions on earth, with as many as 30 tree species at a single site. The effects of aspect (the compass direction that a slope faces), slope position, and elevation produce a high diversity of species. Northern hardwoods are found primarily in the higher elevations, oaks on south-facing aspects and lower hills, and mesophytic hardwoods on north and east aspects and within coves (Hicks). Soils, too, can vary quickly over a short distance due to the same factors. Perhaps the best way to understand these generalizations is that the most common characteristic of mountain forests is rapid change due to the many niches created by mountain topography.
Sequestering Biodiversity: The Mixed Mesophytic Cove Topography
During the first half of the twentieth century an ecologist from Ohio named E. Lucy Braun devoted her life to the study of the forest system on the Central Appalachian plateaus. Braun came to understand that this forest, biologically the richest among the world’s temperate zone systems, forms a coherent system that reaches from Northern Alabama across the coal-bearing plateaus of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia into southeastern Ohio and southwestern Pennsylvania. She attributed the coherence of the system to eons of weathering uninterrupted by glaciation. For more than 200 million years water had eroded the table land into coves, hollows, and rivers; humus accumulated in coves, nurturing forest species that differentiated into more than eighty woody species in canopy and understory, sheltering hundreds of species botanicals on the floor.
Coves on Rock Creek Hollow in early spring.
Tending the Commons photograph by Terry Eiler, courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Braun named the system “mixed mesophytic,” comprising a large variety of species that thrive in medium moisture. Braun reasoned that many of the mixed mesophytic species found throughout eastern North America owe their survival to the Appalachian coves, which sheltered biodiversity against the freezing temperatures that extirpated species elsewhere. Ecologist Orie Loucks, one of the founders of the Lucy Braun Association for the Mixed Mesophytic Forest, pointed out that the same coves could shelter biodiversity against extinction in a time of global warming. Hence forest ecologists have taken to calling the region “the Mother Forest.” 
The antiquity of this forest system is matched by one other in the world’s temperate zone, a forest in southeastern Asia. The sole remnants of an ancient forest that once covered the northern hemisphere, these two forests escaped Pleistocene glaciation. Consquently, the two forest regions exhibit many similarities and some crucial differences. Appalachian ecologist George Constantz notes “more than fifty genera of Appalachian plants that are restricted to eastern North America and eastern Asia, and, except in fossil form, are absent in between.” 
These “disjunct” genera, descended from common ancestors and occurring only in the U.S. and China include hickories, tulip poplar, sassafrass, yellowwood, coffee-tree, silverbell, witch hazel, stewartia, and specific species within the maples, dogwoods, hollies, persimmons, ferns, ginseng, orchids, mayapples, and jack-in-the pulpits, to name a few.
A small sample of the disjunct mixed mesophytic species photographed in rich, shady coves in the Coal River Valley, from right: Pink Lady Slipper (Cypripedium acaule, aka “Whippoorwill Shoes” and “Moccasin Flower”), Mountain Magnolia (Magnolia fraseri), Tulip Poplar, (Liriodendron tulipifera) and Ginseng (Panax quinquefolia). Tending the Commons
photographs by Terry Eiler, Terry Eiler, Lyntha Eiler, and Woody Boggess, courtesy American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
Five species of magnolia are found in the Coal River Valley. No species of magnolia, an ancient species once found throughout the Northern hemisphere, survived the Pleistocene outside of eastern Asia and eastern North America. 
And significantly, wild ginseng has been extirpated in China, with the result that Appalachian wild ginseng is in unprecedented demand on the Asian market.
Impacts of Mountaintop Removal on the Cove Topography and its Forest Resources
Filling adjacent coves and hollows with mine waste, mountaintop removal mining destroys the cove topography:
Former cove on Cabin Creek (inverted green chevron, center) stuffed with mine waste and hydroseeded with non-native grasses.
Tending the Commons photo by Lyntha Eiler, Courtesy, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
In what is surely the largest earth-moving project in the history of the planet, mountaintop removal mining is transforming the Mixed Mesophytic Forest Region (below right) into what the U.S. EPA has named, in its 2004 EIS, the “Mountaintop Mining and Valley Fill Region (below left).
In the southern coalfields anthropogenic forces have once again dominated the forest through the region’s close ties with the national need for coal-fired electricity. Ironically, some of our national environmental legislation has had devastating impacts on the deforestation of many areas within the southern coalfields. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, known as SMCRA (smack-ruh), was an attempt to address the horrendous loss of life in the Buffalo Creek tragedy where a mine refuse dam collapsed. Despite SMCRA's attempt to abolish strip mining (as West Virginia attempted to do) it created a loophole “big enough to drive a coal truck through." Through SMCRA, companies who removed entire mountaintops could avoid the requirement to restore the land to its original contour by stating that the mined land could be used for a "higher and better use. As a result, areas mined by MTR methods are left as grassland or occasionally a prison, subsiding school, golf course, or Walmart.
The EPA’s depiction of the coal industry's "Mountaintop Mining and Valley Fill Region" (right) is superimposed on the Lucy Braun Association’s outline of "Central Appalachia's Mixed Mesophytic Forest Region" (left) to show the relationship between them. Graphics produced by Mary Hufford, using base maps provided by the Appalachian Regional Commission, with support from the Roger D. Abrahams Fund of the Center for Folklore and Ethnography, University of Pennsylvania.
Former WV State Forester William Maxey grew up on "Cigar Hill," across Route 3 from Montcoal, where his father, Paul Maxey, was a mine superintendant for Armco. He participated in the Lucy Braun Association meeting in Charleston, WV in 1996 and supported the Appalachia Forest Action Project, a citizen science monitoring effort led by Ecologist Orie Loucks, and coordinated by John Flynn, a science writer from Rock Creek.
Tending the Commons Photo by Lyntha Scott Eiler, courtesty American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.
In the process of mountaintop removal mining, the topsoil is usually pushed into the valleys instead of spread back across the surface to facilitate reforestation. The soil that is returned is covered with lime and hydroseeded with grass. Coal companies also compact the soil. Bill Maxey, the Director of the WV Division of Forestry from 1993 to 1998, retired due to his concerns about the impacts of MTR. "In other words, our valuable hardwoods forest is lost for the next 150 to 200 years,” stated Maxey. “[It’s like] trying to plant a tree in concrete. It doesn’t work.” As a well respected forester, his stand against MTR served as a strong condemnation against MTR. Three days before he died of cancer, Maxey said (through his brother): “we’re sacrificing thousands of acres of productive forests for a short-term gain by a relative few. But unfortunately, those few are politically powerful people." (Oct 1998 Ken Ward Charleston Gazette)
Photo by Sam McCreery.
When preparing the land for blasting, the trees are usually not harvested. The forest is clearcut and burned. Even local residents wanting to cut the trees for firewood are turned away, and the trees are wasted. [quote here] The picture at the right shows trees that have been cut down and burned in preparation for blasting on the Bee Tree permit on Coal River Mountain.
Timbering in Dry Creek, on Coal River Mountain
Photo by Jen Osha.
In addition to the destruction of the forest on MTR permit areas, many residents are also concerned about the impacts of timbering in the headwaters of the hollows. The picture to the left is taken looking up Dry Creek, and the timbering can be seen on the mountainside in the background. Residents of Dry Creek have already noticed an increased in flooding in the hollow, and are concerned about water levels rising even before the start of MTR operations.
Additional concerns include a move towards clear cutting as opposed to selective cutting, where trees are harvested with concern for regeneration of a healthy forest. One local resident notes, "back years ago, when they would come in and timber a place, they would cut the big timber and not leave the messes that they’re leavin now. In 6 or 8 years, it was back. The smaller timber had a better chance to grow after the big timber was cut. But now they’re cutting everything. . .and they just leave it. They don’t clean it up. When you see that they’re doing the clear cutting, you know what’s coming behind that. They just don’t care."
Some of the names for Central Appalachian coves and hollows memorialize species lost over the past three hundred years of escalating pressure to compete in a globalizing economy. Names like Pigeon Branch, Chestnut Hollow, and Beaver Dam point to species that once contributed to the local ecology and the world economy. Passenger pigeons darkened the skies for hours during annual migrations, causing tree limbs to break beneath the weight of their roosting (beech trees were particularly favored by passenger pigeons), and fertilizing the soil. Chestnuts were a major source of nutrition for free-range livestock which were driven to regional market centers. Beavers created and managed wetlands that ameliorated the effects of heavy rainfalls.
The overharvesting of beaver pelts, the blighting of the Chestnuts, and the mysterious extinction of the passenger pigeons are losses that could be addressed by communities in planning for a post-coal ecology and economy.
Other names highlight species that still play a vital role in the ecology and economy of what Hufford calls the "mixed mesophytic community forest:" Walnut Hollow, Paw Paw Hollow, Red Root Hollow, Seng Creek, Skinned Poplar Branch, Old Field Hollow, the Honey Hole. Perhaps such names harbor clues for planning the future of community life in the Coal River Valley.
Here's a poster
"dealing with the concept of the community forest and the impact of mountaintop removal mining on this significant indigenous system," in the words of Tending the Commons
curator Mary Hufford. It was produced through the former Center for Folklore and Ethnography, University of Pennsylvania, for a workshop on mixed mesophytic community forestry, presented to the Appalachian Center for Etnobotanical Studies, University of West Virginia, Morgantown, WV. Copyright Mary Hufford, 2007.
Please share your stories of, and dreams for, mixed mesophtyic species and spaces on Coal River here.
 Mary Hufford, 1996. “Stalking the Mother Forest: Voices Beneath The Canopy.” FolklifeCenterNews. Washington, D.C.: American Folklife Center. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/tending/essay3a.html
 George Constantz. 2004. Hollows, Peepers, and Highlanders: An Appalachian Mountain Ecology. Morgantown: WVU Press, 45.
 Donald Culross Peattie. 1991  A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 283.
 Donald Davis. 2000. Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 31-32.