A woman enjoys the view of western Maryland's forests.
RESILIENT FORESTS We use science to better understand forest health and resilience to threats such as climate change. © Kent Mason

Stories in Maryland/DC

How We Work: Healthy Forests

Enabling habitats, wildlife and communities to thrive in the face of a changing climate.

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. More than 6 million people in the D.C. metro area get their drinking water from the Potomac River, which flows from the cool mountain streams that form and converge in the forested mountains to the west. Those forests naturally filter our water as it falls from the sky and gradually moves across the landscape toward our faucets.

The forests of the Central Appalachians not only filter our drinking water, they support a diversity of life virtually unrivaled in all other temperate regions of the globe. They are home to 140 kinds of trees, 78 different mammals, 76 amphibians, 250 species of bird, and thousands of other varieties of life.

As climate change brings warmer temperatures and new weather patterns to the Appalachians, plants and animals are shifting their ranges. Western Maryland in particular is a critical migratory channel. Keeping the Appalachian forests healthy and connected will allow people and nature to adapt and thrive.

Keeping our western Maryland forests healthy and connected requires diverse skills, experiences and partnerships. We use science to better understand forest health and resilience. We rely on decades of land management experience to lead the way on sustainable management that keeps priority forests connected and healthy. And we engage people living in Appalachian communities to help them keep forested land connected and healthy for future generations.

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

Families and individuals own 70% of the forests in western MD, so woodland owners play a critical role in conserving Maryland’s forests and the wild creatures that call them home.

Threats such as invasive species, insect pests and drought are damaging forests and degrading wildlife habitat, but addressing these threats can be challenging.  In 2018, TNC conducted a mail survey of 2,000 landowners in western Maryland to better understand their goals and needs.

The survey found that a strong majority of landowners are interested in wildlife habitat and forest health. However, more than half of the respondents to the survey did not have a written plan in place for managing their forests despite the financial benefits that a forest management plan can provide.  Nearly 80% of respondents had never taken advantage of educational resources or expert advice to assist with forest management.  

We're working to close that gap through the Family Forest Outreach Program.  The program's specialist will help landowners in Garrett and Allegany Counties find information, financial resources or expert advice that best meet their current needs to 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 22 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


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


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.
  • Healthy Forests Program Fact Sheet

    (4.2 MB PDF)

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