Spruce
Morning Light Blackwater River in West Virginia's Canaan Valley State Park. © Kent Mason

Stories in West Virginia

Restoring a Spruce Forest

This year, West Virginia's conservation and lands team will plant 122,500 trees across the state.

Home to 240 rare plant and animal species, red spruce forests once covered the rocky peaks of West Virginia’s high country but were decimated by logging in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“Today, only about 55,000 of the original nearly 1,000,000 acres of spruce remain,” says Mike Powell, director of lands for The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.

This year, TNC is preparing to lead or assist restoration plantings totaling 122,500 trees, in addition to other landscape efforts to restore red spruce throughout its historic range.

As of August 2019, TNC employees, contractors and Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI) partners have planted 99,000 red spruce seedlings, and treated more than 1,575 acres for non-native invasive species.

2019 Restoration Projects

  • Conservation ecologist Deborah Landau lays out red spruce seedlings for planting at Cranesville Swamp Preserve.

    Cranesville Swamp

    Working to restore the native conifer forests that help regulate temperature and maintain the “frost-pocket” effect that creates suitable habitat for species such as red spruce. Explore Cranesville Swamp

  • (ALL INTERNAL, LIMTED EXTERNAL USES)  Fall color at The Nature Conservancy's Bear Rocks Preserve in West Virginia.  High above Canaan Valley, in Dolly Sods, where a flat, windswept expanse of subalpine heath barrens opens up to the sky. Stunted red spruce, ancient bogs and forlorn boulders define this haunting landscape, where creatures typically found in more northern environs roam oblivious to their geologic isolation. The Nature ConservancyÕs 477-acre Bear Rocks Preserve is a cornerstone of this wonderfully diverse and complex ecosystem, which lies on a ridge crest that forms part of the Eastern Continental Divide.  PHOTO CREDIT: © Kent Mason

    Allegheny Front Preserve

    Ensure one of the most important pinch points for landscape connectivity in the Central Appalachians remains intact. Explore Allegheny Front

  • Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia.

    Canaan Valley

    Planting Canaan balsam fir and red spruce, which will help restore areas to native conifer species that have been slow to regenerate naturally. Explore Canaan Valley

  • The Conservancy has helped plant more than 300,000 seedlings, which should convert places like this former surface-mining site at Cheat Mountain back into functional forests.

    Cheat Mountain

    Increasing restoration efforts at the Mower Tract by providing funds to plant up to 50,000 red spruce seedlings on areas disturbed by strip mining. Explore Cheat Mountain

  • Over the past 22 years, volunteers have planted more than 62,000 red spruce trees in the forests of western Maryland.

    Sharp's Knob

    TNC will provide spruce and associated hardwood seedlings to the Marlinton-White Sulfur Ranger District of the Monongahela National Forest, as well as the funds to plant them.

Working to Restore Red Spruce a Scale that Matters

“Today’s challenges, like climate change, large-scale land use changes and invasive species, mean that we need to think about conserving and restoring lands and waters at a much larger scale if we want our work to stand the test of time,” says Thomas Minney, executive director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia.

TNC is one of the leaders of two region-wide partnerships that aim to do just that—the Central Appalachians Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI) and the Potomac Highlands Cooperative Weed and Pest Management Area (PHCWPMA).

Ben Rhodes, the Conservancy’s Ecological Restoration Coordinator, plans and coordinates the Conservancy’s on-the-ground contributions to both of those partnerships. Although the initiatives operate in very different ways, Rhodes says they have similar goals.

Sunrise viewed from the Dolly Sods Wilderness area in West Virginia.
Value Beyond West Virginia The value of our efforts to restore red spruce extends beyond the state’s borders into Virginia and D.C., where millions of residents rely on the Potomac River for their drinking water. © Kent Mason

“Ultimately, we’re looking to restore the ecosystem so that it functions in a way that best supports people and nature,” he says. “Whether that’s through the removal of invasive species, by planting spruce trees, or a combination thereof really depends on the site and the role it plays in the larger landscape we’re trying to restore.”

The Potomac Highlands, an area valued for its incredible biodiversity and recreational opportunities, has been hit hard by invasive species. Since 2011, a field crew has been deployed to keep the problem at bay, from tackling infestations of Japanese knotweed along Seneca Creek—a popular trout fishing destination where riverbanks are being choked by the invasive—to educating private landowners in Grant and Pendleton Counties and more.

“By managing invasive species in these targeted areas, we’re not only allowing native species to once again thrive, but also protecting some of the most beloved parts of the state,” Powell says.

Restore Forests

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Giving Mother Nature a Nudge

CASRI serves as a primary example of a project with regional scope—partners have a common goal of restoring historic red spruce and northern hardwoods across the high-elevation landscapes of Central Appalachia. Situated in the heart of this region, West Virginia serves as ground zero for many of the projects that have taken place since the group’s inception in 2009.

“It’s incredible how many trees have been planted so far,” Powell says of the 836,062 accounted for as of November 2018. “But plantings are just one component.” 

Other on-the-ground activities, such as tree thinning, also are helping to give Mother Nature a nudge, and providing opportunities for spruce to once again flourish in places it would have historically. Since 2004, over 2,000 acres of spruce have been “released” from hardwood competition through tree thinning, allowing them to grow into the forest canopy and begin producing seeds. This amounts to roughly 520,000 individual spruce trees released in just five years!

Cheat MountainCanaan ValleyMount Porte Crayon, Pharis Knob, Spruce Knob…CASRI’s work has touched down in all of these iconic areas,” Powell says.

Minney says he’s uplifted by the motivation of partner organizations and determination of on-the-ground workers like the Conservancy’s field crews. 

“It’s impressive to see everyone come together around this common cause and focus on restoration efforts that cross borders to really make a difference—in everyone’s backyards.”