By Jessica Keith
High in the mountains of northeastern West Virginia, 13,500 red spruce seedlings are digging in their roots and getting ready for the fight of their lives.
Nestled amid frosty pockets of cool, moist Appalachian mountain air, these infant evergreens are part of a large-scale restoration effort to expand red spruce dominated forests, which once occupied some half million acres in the state, but now are down to fewer than 50,000.
While each successful planting represents a small victory in The Nature Conservancy’s restoration effort, taken together these burgeoning soldiers are part of something much bigger – the battle against climate change.
Armed with Science
“There is more to climate change than the debate over whether or not it’s primarily a natural occurrence or is human-caused,” says Rodney Bartgis, state director of the Conservancy in West Virginia. “Climate change threatens all of the conservation investments we’ve made to date.”
For ages, species have adapted and shifted ranges as the climate changed. But now changes appear to be happening faster than before, and roadblocks like agricultural lands and development have impaired the habitat corridors that plants and animals may need to relocate. In the face of obstacles like this, Conservancy scientists are trying to find ways in which to protect biodiversity as the climate warms, and are discovering that opportunities may be sky-high in the Central Appalachian Mountains.
“This region has three things going for it,” Bartgis says. “It’s already biologically diverse, it has forested south to north habitat corridors and it varies significantly in elevation.” For plants and animals on the move, the opportunity to head upward in elevation and south to north, without running into habitat obstructions, means a better chance of survival.
This greater possibility for migration and adaptation ultimately will help to maintain the region’s high level of biodiversity, which keeps ecosystems strong and more resilient to any challenges climate change may bring. “Isolated nature preserves aren’t going to provide the kind of protection nature needs,” Bartgis says. “Climate change in the context of today’s world forces us to think about how we’re going to create longitudinal habitat corridors between existing protected areas and to be more considerate of protection efforts at different altitudes.”
“We’re going to lose some species, but the opportunities here are great for more species to survive,” Bartgis says. “We’re starting out with more, so we’re likely to have more left once the climate stabilizes.”
Living on the Edge
So which species are in greatest danger? Scientists believe that communities surviving at the edge of their range, in highly specialized habitats or at high elevations will be most susceptible to climate change.
“Species like red spruce will have no place to go,” Bartgis says. “They can’t move upward and they can’t move north, because they’re situated on isolated ridge tops. We want to have spruce in a wider variety of settings and in a larger number of places than today. Hopefully, some portions of those places will still be able to support spruce in the future.”
The Conservancy’s restoration efforts to expand spruce forests will help to preserve a component of the region’s biological integrity, but Bartgis knows it’s only one piece of the puzzle. “Bringing back red spruce forests is just one of many steps we’ll need to take.”
Jessica Keith is a Nature Conservancy Marketing Specialist-Writer based in Dublin, Ohio