reistrup ‘21 explores mine reclamation and restoration

Cole Reistrup ‘21 graduated from Wesleyan with majors in environmental studies and earth and environmental science. He is also an alumnus of the University of San Francisco, where he received his master of science in environmental management. His master’s thesis, Considerations for the Use of Mycorrhizal Fungi Inoculants in Coal Mine Reclamation and Reforestation in Appalachia: A Guide of Best Practices and Management Recommendations, explores the promising strategy of utilizing mycorrhizal fungi in restoration efforts. Cole is a project manager for Williams Forestry & Associates, where he is responsible for overseeing the safe and effective implementation of coal mine reforestation projects in southern West Virginia and Kentucky. He was recently elected the West Virginia representative for the Society for Ecological Restoration.

I would love to learn a bit about you! Where are you from? What was your undergraduate experience like at Wesleyan?
I grew up in West Virginia, and that’s where I am right now. It is a great state. I definitely developed a love of the outdoors here. I have a family that was always pushing me to go to college, so I applied to a couple places, and Wesleyan was one of them. I wound up getting accepted and going with financial aid, which was definitely the only thing that made it possible. I want to highlight Wesleyan’s awesome financial aid program and that assistance!

I learned about environmental studies as a linked major and definitely recommend it! There are so many crossovers with courses that I only had to take four or five specific environmental studies courses, in addition to my earth and environmental science major courses, to qualify for both majors. It made sense that those two majors went hand in hand and I’m glad that I did both of them. Earth and environmental science is much more natural science based, with geology, hydrology, biology, chemistry, physics, while environmental studies has a lot of courses on topics such as environmental resource economics, environmental law, and environmental policy.

What was your experience like pursuing a masters? 
I was in the McNair Scholars Program at Wesleyan.McNair is for first-gen, low-income students, and students of color, and it’s all about setting students up with resources so they can have the opportunity to go to graduate school. I was super thrilled to be able to go to a place like Wesleyan for undergrad, but didn’t really think my studies would go beyond that. McNair is definitely a big reason why I pursued a masters.

Growing up on the east coast in the West Virginia mountains, I definitely wanted to see what west coast life was like, and the master’s program at the University of San Francisco was my opportunity to do so. I received  a master of science in environmental management, and took a lot of ecology courses. The experience helped me to narrow down my niche to restoration ecology. 

Cole’s hometown of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, and the mountainside. Photo by Cole Reistrup.

What topic did you examine through your thesis work? 
I wrote my thesis on the use of mycorrhizal fungi inoculants in the reforestation of abandoned coal mines in West Virginia. Mycorrhizal fungi are involved in a mutualistic relationship between fungi and the roots of plants. Many mycorrhizal fungi have an above-ground fruiting body, such as the classic mushroom with red and white spots, Amanita Muscaria. Mycorrhizal fungi also have mycelium, which are the underground network that are similar to roots, and they contact the surface of a plant root either by going into the plant root cells or forming a sheath around it. 

Mycorrhizal comes from myco, meaning fungi, and rhizal, being root. It’s an association between the fungus and the plant root. The plant gives fungi sugar because the fungi don’t photosynthesize. Mycorrhizal fungi get energy from the plant and in return give the plant nutrients to grow and make those sugars. 

What interested you in studying restoration ecology? 
I came from a landscaping background and I’ve always worked with plants. I always knew soil was very important, and read several articles about mycorrhizal fungi as an emerging tool in ecology. Using the soil microbiomes is important to develop healthy ecosystems. This topic felt like a natural blend of my field of study and my professional experience in landscaping. I was excited to learn that there is a professional industry for ecological restoration, including coal mines and wetlands, forests, and restoring unused agricultural fields. 

I was inspired to utilize the ecological restoration potential of mycorrhizal fungi and bring some of that research back to West Virginia where I know that there are mining sites that have been reclaimed but never fully restored. I love the idea of taking that knowledge and applying it to a real-world issue that affects my home state. 

Does it matter if the fungi inoculants are not native species to the region you are in? 
By the end of my research, I was super cautious about the potential to introduce non-native mycorrhizal species that could outcompete local species or even local genotypes. You also have to evaluate what types of mycorrhizal species will actually be effective in your restoration efforts. 

Would you share a bit about your campaign for the West Virginia representative for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration? What interests you about this position?
I learned about the Society for Ecological Restoration when I was at my master’s program, and I went to my first conference just a few months ago. The conference is essentially a gathering of private industry professionals, contractors that actually do restoration work, academics, professors, researchers, and people from nonprofit organizations and regulatory agencies. There were presentations throughout the course of the conference, and breakout sessions where people discussed their areas of interest. I left feeling super inspired, but also disappointed not to see as many people from West Virginia there. West Virginia was definitely the least represented state in the mid-Atlantic, and West Virginia needs a greater presence. I would like to reach out to universities in West Virginia and get more people involved in this professional association, because it has incredible resources! Ed. note: Cole has since been elected the West Virginia representative for the Society for Ecological Restoration.

Are there any initiatives that will lead to restoring mined areas in the future? 
There has recently been a lot of funding for it through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which set aside a little over $11 billion, divided among 22 states—with West Virginia getting the second highest amount behind Pennsylvania—to reforest or restore abandoned coal mines. 

West Virginian communities have been left with the short end of the stick from natural resource harvesting and mining. It left a vacuum, so for many people there’s no money to be made. Anything that gives these lands new purpose, and creates employment opportunities, is really great. We want to involve local people in the work that’s done and not just bring in outside contractors, because that doesn’t do any lasting good for the community. 

What advice would you give to students in the College of the Environment? 
Find mentors who can help guide you and introduce you to opportunities and research that you might not discover on your own. If you meet an awesome person, get their email and follow up with them! People generally love to help and can be very giving, especially when they meet passionate young people with bright looks on their faces and many curiosities.

Wherever you’re working, it’s important to find out what’s going on in the local community, identify the big issues in the area, and go out and volunteer and get your hands dirty. I also want to emphasize the importance of communicating with residents of the locality where you’re doing your professional work, whether it’s environmental work or anything else, because local residents appreciate being brought in! Also, you should go back to talk to the people who helped you get to where you are! I know life can get busy, but it really is important to reach out to people from your past.  

If you’re excited about doing research in the environmental field, think about whether or not your research is something that can also be applied in the real world. For me, I’m excited about restoration ecology because I know that there are a lot of degraded landscapes, either from mining or other human development, and I know that there are places that I can go and make a positive impact.