Restoring a Spruce Forest
Spruce restoration and invasive species removal help revitalize iconic landscapes in West Virginia.
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.
The Nature Conservancy is working to return this forest type to its rightful place in the landscape.
Working at 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.
The Conservancy 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.
“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.
Spruce Forests of West Virginia
Backyard of the East
But the value of these efforts in the Potomac Highlands extends beyond the state’s borders into Virginia and D.C., where millions of residents rely on the Potomac River for their drinking water.
That’s one reason the Conservancy recently expanded its watershed assessment work. With support from a Chesapeake Bay Trust grant, the 2015 effort builds on existing assessment projects throughout the state and will identify key areas in the Potomac headwaters region of West Virginia important for protecting and restoring—ultimately serving as a roadmap for conservationists.
“To really get the full sense of our impact, we have to think beyond our county or state,” Minney says. “If you drink water from the Potomac, or visit Dolly Sods to go hiking, then West Virginia is your backyard.”
Giving Mother Nature a Nudge
The Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI) also 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!
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.”