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Appalachian Red Spruce Forest

Learn how this rare habitat is being restored.

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Appalachian Red Spruce Forest

Photo of red spruce forest taken by author Anne LaBastille in 1973.

Photo by Anne LaBastille via Wikimedia.

"A 1925 article in the Scientific Monthly titled 'The Vanishing Spruce,' referred to the high elevation red spruce (Picea rubens) as a 'lost tribe,'" recounts U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Kristin Haider. "This 'lost tribe' metaphor paints a picture of a species that is stranded--disjunct in time and space from the rest of its kind."

Location

Appalachian red spruce forests are found on ridges and peaks, which tend to be cooler and wetter than the valleys below.

Characteristics

The Appalachian red spruce is a coniferous tree which can grow up to 130 feet tall. Its needles are yellow-green, while its thin, scaly bark is gray-brown on the surface and red-brown on the inside. The tree's cones are cylindrical and about 1.5 inches long with a glossy rust color and stiff scales.

Appalachian red spruce are found in monotypical stands as well as forests mixed with Eastern White Pine, Balsam Fir, or Black Spruce. Red Spruce is one of two primary tree types (along with Fraser fir) in the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest, a distinct ecosystem found only in the highest elevations of the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

Historical Extent of Habitat

Historically, red spruce trees were common across the peaks and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, but as temperatures climbed after the last Ice Age (which ended about 10 million years ago), the red spruce-dominated habitat gradually moved northward with colder temperatures to areas of New England and southeastern Canada. Only islands of this rare habitat remained in the high elevations of the central Appalachians.

Before the 19th century, there were over 500,000 acres of high elevation red spruce forests in West Virginia, but by the end of the 20th century, less than 50,000 acres remained.

Current Extent of Habitat

Red spruce occurs from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, west to Maine, southern Quebec, and southeastern Ontario, and south to central New York, northeastern Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, and northeastern Massachusetts. Its range extends south in the Appalachian Mountains of extreme western Maryland, eastern West Virginia, northern and western Virginia, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee.

Ecological Significance

Red spruce forests provide important habitat for many rare plants and migratory bird species, in particular the federally endangered West Virginia northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus fuscus) and the federally threatened Cheat Mountain salamander (Plethodon nettingi).

The loss of red spruce habitat by the end of the 20th century necessitated the listing of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel and the Cheat Mountain salamander under the Endangered Species Act in the late 1980s.

Threats

In West Virginia, the decline of Appalachian red spruce forests was dramatic in the 1800s. The trees were harvested to produce paper products and fine instruments (such as fiddles, guitars, and pianos). The wood was also highly valued in the ship building industry.

"Intense fires often followed the logging operations in the high elevation red spruce forests. These fires, which were commonly the result of stray cinders from the steam trains used to move the timber, often burned hot enough to ignite the thick humus layer that is characteristic of red spruce forest," Kristin Haider explains. "Fire virtually eliminated the soil, along with the red spruce seed bank, at some sites inhibiting the regeneration of the spruce and giving northern hardwood species the opportunity to take over."

Unfortunately, even with reduce timber harvest, the spruce decline has continued.

"Throughout its range, growth rates of red spruce have declined and mortality has increased," according to the U.S. Forest Service. "This decline is apparently more severe at higher elevations, in older stands, and on more exposed sites. A number of studies on the causes of red spruce decline have failed to make a definitive case for any single cause."

It has been hypothesized that the combination of climatic stress (climate change) and pollution is the major cause of red spruce decline. It may also be possible that the trees are simply undergoing a natural cycle of dieback and recovery.

Conservation Efforts

The Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI), launched in 2007, has been effective in protecting and restoring historic red spruce-northern hardwood ecosystems across the high elevation areas of central Appalachia.

CASRI is a diverse and influential conglomerate, consisting of the following partners: Appalachian Mountain Joint Venture, Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Mountain Institute, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station, U.S. Forest Service Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, West Virginia Division of Forestry, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, West Virginia State Parks, and West Virginia University.

The initial impetus for the initiative was to "sustain and enhance the viability of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel" under the Endangered Species Act. But, it has since had a positive impact on the Cheat Mountain salamander, fish species, and many migratory bird species as well.

In 2012, CASRI:

  • raised $725,800 for conservation projects, including the planting of 34,275 native tree seedlings on just over 200 acres, bringing the total acres planted since 2006 to 750.
  • conducted habitat restoration on 106 acres, releasing young red spruce from the understory forest by removing other tree and shrub species.
  • purchased and permanently protected 590 acres of high elevation red spruce habitat.

Get Involved

Donate volunteer time or money to the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI).

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