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Wild Elk Are Coming (Back) to West Virginia

West Virginians are eyeing a potential new source of tourism in the state: the restoration of wild elk.

“It’s something that hasn’t been seen in the state since the Civil War,” says Joe Hankins of the Conservation Fund, a nationwide conservation group.

To bring back elk, they’ve purchased over 30,000 acres of forested and abandoned mine land in southern West Virginia. Turns out, elk thrive in the replanted clearings where coal was once mined. Hankins says other species do too.

“I was down on the sites in October and just watched a steady stream of monarch butterflies, flying along a ridgeline, heading south.”

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The Conservation Fund hopes West Virginia’s struggling economy will also get a boost. In states like Pennsylvania, where elk have been re-established, millions of tourism dollars have followed. The visitor center in Elk County, Pennsylvania drew 350,000 visitors last year. But Hankins says the elk restoration project in West Virginia will take some time.

“It’s a fixer-upper. This is very much a project about potential, about vision and about what could happen.”

The land will be timbered through the Conservation Fund’s Living Forest Fund, with support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Gradually, the site will be turned over to West Virginia and become public lands. As for the elk, they’ll likely be shipped in from Kentucky.

Note: The Richard King Mellon Foundation also provides funding for The Allegheny Front. Reporting by Kara Holsopple.


Hard Times For the Coal Industry Could Lead to Fewer Mine Cleanups

In Pennsylvania, literally hundreds of abandoned mine lands need to be cleaned up, but money to do that is in short supply. That’s because the cash to do the job comes from a fee on active mining. And that has slowed in recent years as the country has moved away from coal-based electricity.

“This is all the waste material which was trammed back up on the hill, and they just dumped it,” says Eric Cavazza, as he picks his way up a steep hillside of loose rocks and pebbles.

Cavazza is head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s abandoned mine lands program. And this coal refuse pile is basically a hill made from the tailings of a coal mine. Tailings are the materials that are left over after the usable coal is separated from the waste part of the ore.

These piles, which dot Western Pennsylvania coal fields, were created before modern environmental regulations required mines to clean up their mess. They’re unstable and pollute surrounding waterways.

“I definitely think had we continued to get the grants the size we were getting about three or four years ago, this project would be done probably within the next couple of years,” says Cavazza.

Pennsylvania officials estimate the slowdown in coal production will lead to about a 6 percent decline in abandoned mine clean-up funds next year. With $15 billion worth of work still to do in the state, officials say they need all the money they can get.

Reporting by Reid Frazier