Small farms dot the Central
Appalachian mountains in western
Maryland.
Restoring Appalachian Forests Small farms dot the Central Appalachian mountains in western Maryland. © Kent Mason

Stories in Maryland/DC

Restoring Appalachian Forests

Keeping western Maryland’s forests healthy and connected.

Appalachian forests encompass a diversity of life virtually unrivaled in the temperate regions of the globe. As the climate changes and species move, we need even more from these forests.

Every seedling we plant, every acre we burn and every tree we measure is all part of a strategy to not only restore healthy forests, but also to serve as a model for land managers across the Appalachians. The Nature Conservancy in western Maryland is restoring forests to safeguard their health and ensure their resilience to changing conditions.

Western Maryland forests
Western Maryland Forests The Potomac River is naturally filtered by the forests of western Maryland. © Kent Mason

The Central Appalachians are the water tower for the mid-Atlantic. The mountain forests naturally filter and protect the headwaters of the Potomac River, source of drinking water for millions of people in the D.C. metro area. These same forests are also one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, providing habitat for more than 200 globally rare plants and animals.

Although Western Maryland occupies only a small slice of the Central Appalachians, it is a critical slice. The forests of Allegany and Garrett counties in western Maryland are a critical migratory corridor for hundreds of plants and animals, especially as climate change shifts their ranges north.

Keeping our western Maryland forests healthy and connected requires diverse skills, experiences and partnerships. We use science to better understand forest health and resilience. And we rely on decades of land management experience to lead the way on sustainable management. 

Otwell Woodlands is an unusually old Eastern Shore woodland of mixed hardwoods and loblolly pines.
Healthy Forests Woodland owners play a critical role in conserving Maryland’s forests. © Ben Herndon for The Nature Conservancy

Helping Landowners

Keeping western Maryland’s forests healthy and connected to the rest of the Central Appalachians means working with both public and private landowners. Families and individuals own 70% of the forests in western MD, playing a critical role in conserving Maryland’s forests and the wild creatures that call them home.

In 2019, we launched a direct mail campaign through our Family Forest Outreach Program to connect more than 1,500 private forest landowners in Garrett and Allegany Counties to information and resources that will help them improve forest health and wildlife habitat on their land.

Over the past 22 years, volunteers have planted more than 62,000 red spruce trees in the forests of western Maryland.
Planting Red Spruce Over the past 22 years, volunteers have planted more than 62,000 red spruce trees in the forests of western Maryland. © Severn Smith / TNC

Restoring Red Spruce

Red spruce (Picea rubens) once covered thousands of acres in western Maryland. Logging and subsequent wildfires at the turn of the 20th Century drastically reduced its range. It's estimated that in the Central Appalachians as much as 90% of the original red spruce forest is now gone.

But we're working to change that statistic - one seedling at a time.

Red Spruce Planting 2018 More than 70 volunteers joined us in April, 2018 to help plant 4,000 red spruce seedlings at Cranesville Swamp.

We’ve been planting red spruce in western Maryland nearly every year since 1996, and have begun re-visiting sites planted 10 years ago in order to introduce age diversity. Over the past 23 years, volunteers have planted more than 62,000 red spruce trees in the forests of western Maryland.

Our efforts will help improve habitat quality for rare plants and animals, help rebuild carbon-rich soils, improve hydrology and local climate, and reduce erosion and increase percolation of water into the underlying bedrock.

It's a pretty good payoff for a spring day spent in a beautiful place!

Snags (dead trees still standing) are a characteristic of old growth. They make great habitat for birds.
Old-Growth Forests Snags (dead trees still standing) are a characteristic of old growth. They make great habitat for birds. © Severn Smith / TNC

Restoring Old-Growth Forests

Old-growth was once the predominant natural forest condition across the Eastern United States before European settlement on the continent. Today, however, old-growth forests are one of the rarest habitats in our region, constituting less than 1 percent of our forests.

TNC is using new science and management techniques to accelerate old growth conditions across the Central Appalachians, starting with a demonstration project in Savage River State Forest in Garrett County, Maryland.

Stepping into an old-growth forest can feel like traveling back in time. The most apparent feature are the old trees, which may be very large or show other signs of age like shaggy bark. There is structural diversity, which means trees of different species and age create a layered canopy. There are dead trees known as “snags” still standing, and there are dead trees on the ground that leave gaps in the canopy, allowing sunlight to reach the forest floor. These conditions create a habitat type that supports some of the most rare and charismatic wildlife species native to our region.

We can accelerate old-growth charecteristics in even-aged forests through specific management techniques that replicate the natural processes that create old-growth conditions. In Maryland, we are partnering with the Forest Service and the Wildlife and Heritage Service to increase the use of practices to accelerate the development of this under-represented forest habitat type on pubic and private lands. Throughout the Central Appalachians, we are helping forest managers create a healthy mix of forest habitat types so that our forests can more easily adapt to a changing climate.

Controlled burn in an oak-hickory forest at the Sideling Hill Creek preserve, the first burn conducted at this location.
Good Fire Controlled burn in an oak-hickory forest at the Sideling Hill Creek preserve, the first burn conducted at this location. © Gabriel Cahalan / TNC

GOOD FIRE

One of the most reliable ways to boost forest health is by reintroducing fire. 

Controlled burns are always conducted with safety as the top priority.  Burn staff are trained practitioners who monitor the weather leading up to and during a burn to ensure the fire remains at the desired intensity and smoke is carried up and away from roads and homes.  If the required conditions for temperature, humidity, moisture levels, cloud cover and wind are not met or they unexpectedly change, the burn will be postponed.

The benefits that fire can bring to a landscape are remarkably varied. Many species of plants and trees have evolved to be fire-adapted, and may not grow or disperse their seeds until after a forest has burned.  

Fire enhances a forest’s overall biodiversity, and by doing so makes it more resilient. When a stand of trees includes many different species rather than a few, they’re less likely to be wiped out by threats like pests or disease. And that resilience is crucial for the species and communities that depend on the services a forest provide.

Western Maryland's 2019 LEAF cohort set a path at Wills Mountain.
Inspiring Tomorrow's Leaders Western Maryland's 2019 LEAF cohort set a path at Wills Mountain. © Bianca Bowman / TNC

LEADERS FOR THE FUTURE

For two weeks in July, 2019, a cohort of six students from western Maryland's Allegany and Garrett Counties took part in hands on field experiences to explore local forest landscapes and learn about careers in conservation. 

The LEAF interns were diverse in gender, aspirations and socioeconomic backgrounds, but the students all shared a common interest: environmental conservation. 

The group helped to install a beaver baffle at Finzel Swamp Preserve; cleared space for larch trees; collected deer ticks for a study being conducted at Frostburg State University; built and installed a new interpretive sign at the Sideling Hill Creek Preserve; and used the iNaturalist app to identify and map mushroom species.

The students were also exposed to the role of policy in conservation. They took the lessons learned from the chapter's vigorous youth advocacy training program and put them into practice during a day spent meeting with local Allegany County elected officials.

LEAF 2019 The 2019 LEAF interns describe their experiences in their own words.

Contact

Donnelle Keech
Resilient Forests Program Director
Email: dkeech@tnc.org

  • Healthy Forests Program Fact Sheet

    Nature is built to adapt. Our role is to provide the time and space these forests and wildlife need to adapt.

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