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.
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. 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.
In 2018, we planted more than 100,000 trees across the state of Maryland. In western Maryland, we are restoring the native coniferous forests by planting red spruce trees in areas that have been degraded and transformed from centuries of logging. On the Eastern Shore, we are restoring more than 600 acres of upland forest at the headwaters of Nassawango Creek, a Chesapeake Bay tributary in the heart of farm country.
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.
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!
One of the most reliable ways to boost forest health is by reintroducing fire.
We know that fire is as natural and necessary as rain in these forests, but the more we understand about how and when fires occurred historically, the better we can replicate those natural events through safe controlled burns.
To fill gaps in our knowledge after decades of fire suppression, TNC funded an Arcadia University study of fire scars preserved in the rings of “recorder trees” dating back as far as 1797.
The science of tree-ring dating, or dendrochronology, tells us more about a tree than just its age. Tree rings present an intricate story of the climate and environment in which the tree grew each year of its life. And when we compare the story of one tree with the stories of dozens of others within a given landscape, a fuller, and sometimes smokier, picture emerges.
Limited resources, including equipment and personnel, is often an obstacle to implementing a successful fire program. In 2016 we led the expansion of the Central Appalachian Fire Learning Network, a collaboration between TNC and multiple state and federal agencies.
We have partnered with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to conduct burns across more than 660 acres of woods and wetlands on Maryland's Eastern Shore since 2007. Applying FLN's collaborative model successfully in western Maryland is a critical next step in keeping some of the state’s most valuable natural resources healthy and thriving.
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.
By joining forces and pooling resources, we will dramatically scale up the size of our burns — and accelerate our progress toward the healthy forests of the future.
LEADERS FOR THE FUTURE
Every July, urban high school students from The Nature Conservancy’s Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program head out for summer work adventures to learn about careers in conservation. In 2017 the Maryland program began extending the same opportunity to students in western Maryland’s Allegany County, bringing them together with visiting students from New York City.
Sometimes the best way to learn about possible careers in conservation is to just roll your sleeves up and try out the work for yourself. The LEAF interns in Maryland learn not only about the hard on-the-ground work it takes to keep our forests healthy, but the vital role that policy and our elected officials play in that as well.
Together, the group crossed the state trying their hands at everything from trail maintenance to public advocacy. It was a packed couple of weeks, but provided the students with lots of great experiences.