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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 23 years, volunteers have planted more than 62,000 red spruce trees in the forests of Western Maryland.
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.