Informed expectations about future energy development across the region can identify where these resources may intersect with and impact other ecological or cultural values.
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The development of coal, gas, and wind energy resources and the physical infrastructure supporting them represent both historical and emerging drivers of landscape change at large scales in the Appalachian region, particularly in the central and northern Appalachians.
Areas where impervious surface cover and forest loss are increasing with the development of energy infrastructure are likely to experience altered surface hydrology and reductions in surface drinking water availability and quality. Waters discharged from watersheds containing mined sites commonly show elevated total dissolved solids and acidity, impairing those waters’ biological communities. Negative effects can continue for long periods after reclamation. Watersheds containing mined land show elevated runoff during heavy rains, potentially contributing to downstream flood peaks. Negative effects may be reduced or reversed with forest-restoring reclamation practices.
Soil loss and compaction associated with surface mining and some reclamation practices can impede forest regeneration. Although not widely adopted, alternative practices are available to minimize these effects.
Timber and nontimber forest products
Surface mining is expected to reduce the land area available to support working forests. This is the largest driver of land cover change in the central Appalachian coalfield region, and significant loss of timber-related economic activity can result if reclamation practices do not support forest regeneration. Restoration practices are available to mitigate these losses, but common reclamation efforts can impede forest recovery. Standing timber stocks and production have remained fairly stable in recent decades, but declines may be experienced over the long term.
Forest losses associated with energy infrastructure development and surface mining are expected to result in reduced forest carbon storage. While the carbon storage potential of forest restoration on mined sites is high, successful restoration practices are not implemented on many to most sites, and some current practices may prevent significant new carbon sequestration. Assuming similar future trends in the absence of large-scale forest restoration, carbon losses from future surface mining could outstrip total regional carbon sequestration gains from existing forests.
Rural landscape values and outdoor recreation
New gas wells and wind turbines and associated infrastructure build-out and forest loss are expected to strongly impact landscapes in the Marcellus Shale region of the central Appalachians over the next several decades. Surface mining is the dominant driver of land cover change in the central Appalachian coalfield region, and associated forest loss, forest fragmentation, freshwater stream degradation, and other biotic and aesthetic losses contribute to the overall loss of natural landscape character when adequate ecosystem restoration activities are not in place.
Stream degradation and toxic dissolved solids in watersheds with surface mines are associated with loss of fishing opportunities and represent a strong incentive for stream restoration. Reductions in game fish species abundances are associated with mine densities at local and regional scales. Concentrations of freshwater dissolved solids in watersheds with mined sites have also been associated with fish toxicity, deformity, and reduced biomass and species diversity.
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Energy infrastructure build-out is a key component of the regional energy extraction economy, landscape-level environmental impacts, and rural–urban economic and resource linkages.