View looking out over a valley to the forested mountains beyond. Two small farms are nestled into green openings in the forest.
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.

Looking down on a still brown river as it curves through a thick forest. A mountain ridgeline stretches across the horizon.
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. These mountain forests naturally filter and protect the headwaters of the Potomac River, the 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 an important one. 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.

The upper part of a dead tree snag. Its top is broken off and jagged. Holes made by birds create the appearance of a face.
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.

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 do just that. By creating two demonstration projects in Western Maryland—one on TNC’s Sideling Hill Creek Preserve and one in Savage River State Forest—our goal is to influence public and private forest landowners to adopt the best practices that will expand the amount of old growth forest across Appalachia.

As the climate changes, plants and animals will need to shift their ranges north and upslope to find suitable habitat. Maintaining a healthy and connected Appalachian corridor creates that opportunity. It is crucial that we keep our Western Maryland forests a healthy and connected link in the chain.

Low intensity fire moves up a wooded slope as seven members of a TNC crew monitor the fire line during a controlled burn.
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: Returning a Natural Process to the Landscape

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

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.

In 2020, we hit a major milestone in our resilient forests program: TNC and partners conducted controlled burns on more than 500 acres of Central Appalachian forests in Western Maryland. As we celebrate our 30th anniversary of conducting controlled burns, we are now leveraging that expertise and trust as the first step toward an ambitious goal of returning the natural process of fire to the Central Appalachians at a landscape scale.

View looking over a woman's shoulder as she rests her hand on the thick bark of a pine tree.
Healthy Forests Woodland owners play a critical role in conserving Maryland’s forests. © Ben Herndon for The Nature Conservancy

Helping Landowners

Over 60 percent of Appalachian forests are privately owned by individuals and families, which makes family forest landowners crucial conservation partners.

In 2019, TNC launched a direct mail campaign to connect Western Maryland landowners with resources and programs that will help them manage and protect their land with the goal of maintaining forest health and connectivity.

In just under six months, we received more than 70 responses from local landowners who were interested in enhancing the resiliency of their forests. Six landowners have already agreed to participate in an invasive species management pilot project, in which they will implement techniques meant to reduce and control invasive plants like Japanese stiltgrass and mile-a-minute.

The spiky green top of a red spruce tree seedling. In the background a man crouches down next to a young girl.
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.

A student wearing an orange hardhat and black mask uses a plastic bottle to spray herbicide onto a locust tree.
Giving Red Spruce a Boost Allegany College of Maryland forestry students apply herbicide to locusts trees. © Matt Kane / TNC

In September 2020, forestry students from Allegany College of Maryland joined Maryland/DC staff at Finzel Swamp Preserve to give red spruce a boost! They applied herbicide to the insides of locust trees, which will kill them and prevent their competition with red spruce saplings that will be planted at the preserve in the spring.

The seedlings will be among others planted for a project, sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund, across 255 acres in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

Seedlings sourced from across the Central Appalachians will help introduce greater genetic diversity within the restoration site, improving the species' capacity to adapt to climate change.

Contact

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

  • Keeping the Central Appalachians connected and resilient.

    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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