Surface mining is a major driver of land use land cover (LULC) change in many mountainous areas such as the Appalachian region. Typical reclamation practices often result in land cover dominated by grass and shrubs. Assessing ecosystem services that can be obtained from a forest landscape may help policy-makers and other stakeholders fully understand the benefits of forestry-based reclamation (FRA). The objectives of this study are to (1) identify how surface mining and reclamation changed the LULC of a watershed encompassing the north fork of the Kentucky River, (2) assess the biophysical value of four major ecosystem services under the contemporary LULC condition, and (3) assess the benefits of the FRA scenario in the provision of ecosystem services. Geographic Information System (GIS) was used to study the LULC change and InVEST software models for ecosystem services assessment. The results indicate that watershed’s forest area has decreased by 7751 hectares from 2001 to 2011 and mining/reclamation activities may have contributed 65% of the overall changes in LULC. Barren and grassland land covers provide less carbon storage, yield more water, and export more sediments and nutrients than forests. At the watershed level, the FRA scenario increased carbon storage (13%) and reduced water yield (5%), sediment export (40%), and nutrient export (7%). The provision of these ecosystem services varies at the subwatershed level, and such spatial heterogeneity is primarily driven by land cover composition, precipitation, and topography. This study provides critical information regarding the ecological benefits of restoring mined land to assist policy and decision making at landscape scales.

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Published in Forests, v. 9, issue 10, 652, p. 1-23.

© 2018 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.

This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).

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This work was funded by the University of Kentucky and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, McIntire Stennis project 1014537.

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This is publication No. 18-09-091 of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station and is published with the approval of the Director.