Planting Red Spruce at Cranesville Preserve

Passport to Nature

By Whitney Hall

Step.  SQUELCH.  Step.  SQUELCH.

That's the sound my rubber boots make as I slog through wet, mucky earth on a bright and breezy Friday afternoon.  I'm in Monongahela National Forest with my colleagues from Maryland/DC, Deborah Landau and Danny Foster.  Over the next three hours we'll collect in excess of 1,700 seedlings from this mature red spruce forest.  On Saturday we'll be joined by fellow staff members and volunteers to replant these small seedlings at the Conservancy's Cranesville Swamp Preserve.

"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 some age diversity in these restored forests", says Deborah Landau, Conservation Ecologist for the Maryland/DC chapter.  "It’s so satisfying to go back to these sites and see how well the seedlings we rescued are growing.  I can’t wait to come back to these sites in another decade and do it all again."

Red spruce (picea rubens) once covered thousands of acres in western Maryland. Logging and burning at the turn of the 20th Century drastically reduced its range. Bringing red spruce back to western Maryland will help improve habitat quality for rare plants and animals by restoring natural vegetation and ecological processes, reducing erosion, and improving hydrology.  Red spruce keep their needles in winter, which keeps the ground shaded and snow from melting too quickly. A slower melt allows water to percolate into the ground rather than running off into streams, gutters, and roads.

It’s estimated that in the Central Appalachians as much as 90% of the original red spruce forest is now gone. We're working to change that statistic - one seedling at a time.

Day One — Pulling

Our office for the day — a gas right-of-way in Monongahela National Forest.  With permission from the Forest Service, we'll spend the next several hours "rescuing" red spruce seedlings that would otherwise be cut down during regular mowings.

Day One — Pulling

No tools necessary.  Thanks to short roots and damp, spongy soil, these seedlings pull easily out of the ground.  They will be replanted at Cranesville Swamp Preserve, where they will join the 23,800 red spruce seedlings Conservancy staff and volunteers have planted at the preserve since 2002.

This water-filled tire track provides a perfect spot for salamander eggs to grow. 

The Appalachians are home to the most diverse community of salamanders in the world.  More than 50 salamander species live throughout Maryland and Virginia.

Day Two — Planting

Just some of the more than 1,750 seedlings collected in Monongahela that we'll be replanting at Cranesville Swamp Preserve.  The Nature Conservancy first began protecting Cranesville Swamp in 1960. Since then, the preserve has grown to encompass nearly 2,000 acres.

Honoring a Departed Volunteer

Prior to getting the work day underway, we gathered near the trailhead to remember long-time Conservancy supporter and volunteer Sue Henley.  Sue passed away in November, 2014, but was able to attend that year's planting despite undergoing chemotherapy treatment.  Along with her husband, Jack Krusberg, Sue had been participating in red spruce plantings for over 10 years.

Jack Krusberg plants the first red spruce of the day in honor of his late wife Sue Henley.

Sue and Jack were also actively involved in Maryland's Potomac Gorge programs.

Plaque and red spruce seedling planted in memory of Sue Henley.

Day Two — Planting

Will Fischer uses a dibble tool to create a shallow hole to receive a red spruce seedling.

State-rare birds such as golden-crowned kinglet, alder flycatcher, Nashville warbler and saw-whet owl can be found at Cranesville.

Day Two — Planting

The Conservancy's Danny Foster places a seedling in the ground.

The primary threat to Cranesville’s unique setting is a warming of the local climate, causing a loss of habitat and species. The Conservancy is working to prevent this loss of species by restoring forests.

Day Two — Planting

Improved forest connectivity may one day allow species like the West Virginia Northern flying squirrel to return to Cranesville Swamp. Learn more about the connection between red spruce and the flying squirrel in Nature Conservancy magazine.


Seventeen volunteers, including father and son Caleb and Adam Heifer, joined Conservancy staff members for the planting.


We were also joined by Maryland Conservation Corps members Will Fischer, Austin Huez, Devon Zimmer, Erin Eve and Sofia Oriz.

Explore Cranesville Swamp Preserve

A window into ice ages past, Cranesville Swamp is located in a "frost pocket," an area where the surrounding hills capture moisture and cold air that conspire to create a landscape more reminiscent of habitat found much farther north in Canada. Given Cranesville Swamp’s lush forest and wetland, it’s not surprising that it is home to an exceptional variety of animals. In total, more than 50 rare plant and animal species inhabit Cranesville.

Cranesville Swamp Preserve is open year-round during daylight hours for nature walks and birding in designated areas. There are five hiking trails, all less than two miles long. One of the highlights of the preserve is the 1,500-foot boardwalk, which allows for easy exploration over the wettest parts of the bog.

Plan your visit

Download an audio tour.  It's like having a naturalist in your pocket!

Explore Canaan Valley and Dolly Sods

An hour south of Cranesville, you'll find Canaan Valley and Dolly Sods.  This landscape perched atop the Allegheny Front is arguably the Central Appalachians' best known high country. The landscape includes several adjoining wind-swept plateaus: Dolly Sods, Flatrock Plains, Red Creek Plains and Roaring Plains, culminating in the 4,770-foot spruce-clad summit of Mount Porte Crayon. Next to Dolly Sods lies Canaan Valley, the highest large valley in eastern North America. Within the valley is a 7,000-acre expanse of wetlands, the largest anywhere in the unglaciated Appalachians.

Places to visit:

Bear Rocks Preserve

Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater Falls State Park


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