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Microtopography Influences Early Successional Plant Communities on Experimental Coal Surface Mine Land Reclamation



Surface mining for coal represents one of the dominant forms of anthropogenic disturbance to forests of the eastern United States. Reclamation methods adopted under federal law in the 1970s have led to a state of arrested succession, failing to achieve pre-disturbance conditions. New methods of reclamation have been proposed with the goal of returning mined land to its former forested state through the use of compaction reducing techniques that significantly increase fine-scale heterogeneity. The Forestry Reclamation Approach creates topographic heterogeneity by loosely dumping overburden material into large piles to serve as a tree-planting medium. We examined the effect of fine-scale topographic relief, soil physical properties, and reclamation method on early plant community development on a mine site in eastern Ohio. We sampled plots at four microtopographic positions and three distances from the remaining forest edge in both experimentally and traditionally reclaimed areas of a surface mine. Multivariate analysis of variance (ANOVA) on distance matrices indicated significant differences in plant community composition among microtopographic positions and reclamation methods. Microtopographic positions also exhibited significant differences in measured soil properties significantly affecting plant community composition. Plots in the traditionally reclaimed areas had no woody plant colonization, indicating arrested succession common to sites reclaimed using traditional methods. Our results suggest that the creation of topographic heterogeneity at the time of reclamation markedly accelerates ecological succession and promotes enhanced plant community diversity. Expanded application of the methods used here could allow for a faster return to the former forested state of mined lands than traditional reclamation methods.