One of the largest coal fields in the eastern United States lies beneath the Cumberland Plateau physiographic region. Historically, the Cumberland Plateau was covered by a nearly contiguous deciduous forest composed of approximately 30 hardwoods in some areas and was recognized for its high biodiversity and as a globally outstanding ecological resource. Land use conversion from activities associated with settlement and resource extraction; however, have fractured the landscape, altered habitat structure and impacted faunal assemblages within the region.
The impacts of surface mining on biota within the Cumberland Plateau are of specific concern. Surface mining can affect fauna in a variety of negative and positive ways. Physical processes associated with mining, such as blasting, earth-moving, and vehicular traffic, are obvious and immediate causes of wildlife mortality and habitat destruction. Mine waste can alter the chemical and physical qualities of aquatic systems in ways that extirpate sensitive species or entire communities. Loss of habitat due to mining can be a significant source of mortality for those species that have specialized life requirements, and fragmentation of habitat can isolate organisms by creating physical barriers that impede dispersal. Conversely, reclaimed surface mines can create conditions favorable to grassland, early successional or wetland species that may or may not have been historically present.
To protect and preserve faunal attributes of the Cumberland Plateau, efforts must be undertaken to restore wildlife habitat lost to surface mining. Perhaps the best hope for biodiversity conservation on mined land is the recognition of the management potential that exists there. Success in promoting the restoration of native forests and in creating grasslands composed of noninvasive, nonexotic plants and animals will require major changes in current reclamation regulations, philosophies and practices. Authorities that dictate the trajectories of future landscapes on the Cumberland Plateau need to work toward an integrated system of functional, interconnected forests, native grasslands and healthy aquatic systems that promote biodiversity and can serve as functional replacements for land that has been altered. Specific steps to achieve these goals include: (1) prevent loss of streams and other aquatic ecosystems due to filling, (2) avoid using exotic, invasive plant species for reclamation, (3) make forest and native grassland restoration economically feasible, (4) avoid soil compaction on reclaimed surfaces, (5) promote education that underscores the value of native biodiversity and its many ecological and cultural benefits to humanity, and (6) make the reclamation process planned biodiversity restoration rather than an artifact of convenience and tradition.