“If you drink water from the Potomac, or visit Dolly Sods to go hiking, then West Virginia is your backyard.”
– Thomas Minney, executive director, The nature Conservancy 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 1.3 million acres of spruce remain,” says Mike Powell, land conservation practitioner for the 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 Conservancy in West Virginia.
The Conservancy is one of the leaders of an alphabet soup of groups working to do just that—CASRI, CWPMA and ERT.
Ben Rhodes, who currently heads up the Conservancy’s Ecological Restoration Team (ERT), got his start as part of the Potomac Highlands Cooperative Weed and Pest Management Area team (CWPMA). The initiatives—each funded by the United States Forest Service—have similar goals, Rhodes says.
“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 like garlic mustard, by planting spruce trees, or a combination thereof really depends on the site.”
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 tourist destination where riverbanks are being choked by the invasive—to educating private landowners in the Smoke Hole Canyon 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.
Sunrise over the Allegheny Front viewed from the Dolly Sods Wilderness area. © Kent Mason
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.”
Staff from The Nature Conservancy planting trees during restoration work at the Conservancy's Bear Rocks Preserve in West Virginia. © Kent Mason
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 more than roughly 584,000 accounted for as of mid-2015. “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.
Minney says he’s uplifted by the motivation of partner organizations and determination of on-the-ground workers like Rhodes and his crew.
“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.”