LEXINGTON, Ky. (Jan. 17, 2024) — For more than two decades, Chris Barton, Ph.D., professor of forest hydrology and watershed management in the University of Kentucky Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, has been conducting research related to environmental pollution and the restoration of degraded lands. Primarily focused on coal mines in Appalachia, Barton’s research recently expanded to a more global scale.
Barton received a Fulbright U.S. Distinguished Chair in Science, Technology and Innovation award, which supported a six-month stay leading reforestation efforts in Queensland and New South Wales, Australia. This prestigious academic exchange program expands and strengthens relationships with citizens of other nations, addressing critical research challenges and promoting international understanding and cooperation.
“By improving our ability to rehabilitate disturbed lands, we create new opportunities for areas that are often considered marginal,” said Barton. “We protect biodiversity, improve environmental quality and contribute significantly to the development of a sustainable future for these impacted communities.”
With interest growing in climate change mitigation, Barton’s research shifted slightly in recent years to examine how reforestation of disturbed landscapes could improve environmental quality and sequester carbon. His research in Appalachia has resulted in a number of findings that have informed mine rehabilitation policy and led to the development of new restoration techniques and the planting of millions of trees.
Barton then applied for a Fulbright award to test these findings’ transferability to similarly disturbed lands in Eastern Australia.
“Parts of Eastern Australia are similar to Appalachia due to coal mining in the area,” said Barton. “With the devastating bush fires experienced across Australia in previous years and the urgent need to do something ‘now’ to combat climate change, interest in reforestation in Australia has grown substantially. If we could transfer some of our findings in Appalachia to other areas across the globe, it would be vital to mitigating climate change and further protecting the land.”
These international efforts started in 2020 when Green Forests Work, a non-profit focused on tree-planting, began a global experiment to test the transferability of the Forestry Reclamation Approach to other mining regions of the world with the planting of 4,000 trees on a coal mine near Biloela, Australia. In 2021 and 2022, funds were secured from the Arbor Day Foundation and others for the planting of 230,000 trees in Queensland. Two projects focused on coal mines, Anglo American’s Dawson mine and Glencore’s Collinsville mine. A third project aimed to reforest old pasture for carbon sequestration benefits, and the fourth project reforested riparian areas adjacent to the Fitzroy River in an effort to reduce erosion impacting the Great Barrier Reef.
“Unlike the tree species we plant in Appalachia (oaks, hickories, maples, pines etc.), Queensland’s reforestation area was planted with a variety of Eucalyptus species such as white box, narrow leaf ironbark, red gum, gray box and dusky leaved ironbark, to name a few,” Barton said. “These trees will grow to provide forested habitat for a variety of animals that we do not encounter in Appalachia including glossy black cockatoo, wedgetail eagle, black-faced rock wallaby, kangaroo, echidna and the Australian reed warbler. Many native fish in streams on the site including threatened species such as the Murray cod, silver perch, purple-spotted gudgeon, olive perchlet and freshwater catfish will also benefit from the project. The trees will reduce erosion and provide shade, helping to cool surface water and improve the local hydrology.”
In March 2023, Barton returned to Queensland to finish planting and do some clean-up on the project that was started in 2021. He and his partners planted 32,750 trees in a little more than three days.
“This is an ongoing partnership,” said Barton. “Our goal, with help from partners like the Arbor Day Foundation, Komatsu, Anglo American, Glencore, the Fitzroy Basin Association and Corporate Carbon, is to scale-up and restore 10,000 hectares over the next 10 years in Australia, which will require the planting of nearly 10 million trees.”
In addition to the environmental impact, Barton anticipates his time abroad impacting his research and teaching.
“The Fulbright scholarship as a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Barton. “As a researcher, I decided to accept any invitation to give a talk, have coffee or visit a field site while in the country, and that decision led to some very rewarding experiences. I am sure that the experiences I have gained will have a positive impact on my research and teaching programs as well as my personal life going forward.”
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