Why reclaiming degraded land is a necessary climate solution
February 7, 2023
By Lindsay Kuczera
A deserted shopping mall, an abandoned mine, and a defunct landfill are common sights in the United States. Like many, I assumed places like this would never change, doomed to be an eyesore and environmental hazard forever. But after graduating from Virginia Tech’s Master of Natural Resources program, I better understood the array of environmental issues we have to tackle and the solutions at our fingertips.
I was drawn to climate change issues during my studies, as it is an urgent topic that affects every ecosystem, animal, and person around the world. In my current role with the National Wildlife Federation’s climate and energy team, we advance and advocate for equitable climate-focused federal policy, and natural climate solutions—strategies that enhance the ability of natural systems to mitigate climate change—are among those. In a recently published report, we assessed the climate benefits of reclaiming these degraded lands.
What are degraded lands?
Degraded lands—which include brownfields, Superfund sites, abandoned mines, and orphaned oil and gas wells—have lost much of their natural productivity due to human activities, like oil drilling and hard rock mining. Collectively, there are over 4 million across the country, and they pose significant risks to public health and wildlife habitat. In fact, you could be one of the 9 million Americans who live within a mile of an orphaned well. Cleaning up and restoring these lands is an often-overlooked strategy for combating climate change, but one that can reduce unnecessary emissions, capture and store carbon, restore green space, and revitalize communities.
Climate and community impacts
Degraded lands are more vulnerable to erosion, weathering, leaching, and decomposition, and release carbon dioxide, methane, and other harmful gases. With proper management, these lands have the potential to sequester millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually as new and restored forests, grasslands, shrublands, and soils. They can also be good places to site new redevelopment, solar, wind, or transmission projects if natural restoration is not a viable option.
These degraded lands also come with a cost that falls heavily on frontline communities and wildlife that live in proximity to these sites. Clean air and water are compromised, and the carbon storage potential is often rendered obsolete. Reclaiming and restoring degraded lands while reducing our reliance on fossil fuels is crucial to improve human and ecological health and increase climate stability across the globe.
Orange rivers: an example of reclamation in Pennsylvania
Appalachia is one area that suffers greatly from degraded lands. Over 5,000 abandoned underground mines dot the landscape in Pennsylvania. Bright orange water contaminated with heavy metals from acid mine drainage flows from these underground mines and backs into the watershed and nearby reservoirs. This highly acidic water coats streams with a thick slime, making the water undrinkable, destroying habitat, and poisoning plant and animal life.
Boreholes serve a vital purpose for reclamation in this region. With nowhere to go, the underground mine water often flooded local homes and businesses, creating millions of dollars in damage and public health concerns. Boreholes help alleviate this issue by relieving that pressure. The red borehole seen above pumps water from the underground mine into the stream channel and filters it down to the maelstrom oxidizer which treats the acid mine drainage.
Applying key principles for climate-informed reclamation
Strategies for reclaiming degraded lands will be different depending on the area and the goal. Climate-informed principles can help policymakers, community leaders, and local, state, and Tribal governments strategize the best process and use of their project sites.
For example, planting trees can help store carbon and can help us meet climate goals when implemented properly and with careful monitoring for success. Planting native grasses can stabilize soils, store carbon, and benefit future biodiversity. Redeveloping brownfields and Superfund sites can save green space, reduce urban sprawl, and aid in smart growth. Additionally, reclamation strategies should always be created with the collaboration and leadership of local communities, especially frontline and Tribal communities already coping with high pollution burden and increased climate vulnerability, to ensure that they reap the needed benefits.
Investments in our future
Recently, there has been significant federal investment in the reclamation of degraded lands. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) allocates $21 billion to reclamation efforts, and the Inflation Reduction Act reinstates the Superfund tax on oil and petroleum companies, which will provide additional funding to the EPA for Superfund cleanup. This historic funding brings us one step closer to cleaning up harmful polluted sites and creating opportunities on that land in the form of natural restoration and carbon sequestration, renewable energy, housing, or recreational projects that can positively impact people and wildlife.
Lindsay Kuczera is a 2021 graduate of the MNR program and is currently on the National Wildlife Federation’s climate and energy team. She uses her background in social sciences and environmental sustainability to communicate complex issues including climate change, environmental justice, wildlife conservation, and eco-tourism. Lindsay has merged her love of preserving the natural world with her passion for storytelling to contribute to organizations like National Geographic, The Climate Pledge, the Department of the Interior, National Wildlife Federation, and the District Coyote Project.
She is a regular contributor to this blog.