Kent Mason

Central Appalachians

Saving High Elevation Forests

Red spruce forests once dominated the spectacular peaks of the Central Appalachians across West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee and North Carolina. In the nineteenth century the mountains were heavily logged and wildfires further devastated the forests. Hardwood species grew back in many areas, but red spruce did not recover as readily and this habitat was reduced dramatically.

Now The Nature Conservancy and partners are working to restore this special ecosystem that is home to hundreds of rare species. By focusing on the whole ecosystem, we’re beginning to bring back these forests and the special communities of plants and animals that depend on them.

The Great Cut

In West Virginia alone, less than 10% of historic red spruce forests remain today. Most were cut as the expansion of railroads brought in extensive logging in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Devastating wildfires followed the logging and wind and rain eroded away the exposed soil—sometimes removing it down to the bedrock. Red spruce forests are now among the most endangered ecosystems in the region. Today, nearly 1,500 acres of high-elevation forests have been restored, but much work remains to safeguard and re-connect these ecologically important landscapes.

Flying Squirrels and More

The cool, dark forests that blanket the Central Appalachians’ highest peaks are not only enchantingly beautiful for hikers and birdwatchers, they are home to many rare species—more than 240 in West Virginia alone. The West Virginia northern flying squirrel is one such species, which was recently removed from the endangered species list thanks in part to successful forest restoration projects. Another, the Cheat Mountain salamander, remains federally threatened. High-elevation forests also shelter trout streams and help protect clean water for the towns and cities of the region.

Whole Ecosystem Restoration

The Nature Conservancy began protecting red spruce forests in West Virginia in the 1970’s and 80’s by protecting extensive acreage of high elevation forests and creating preserves in the Dolly Sods and Cheat Mountain landscapes.  Today, we are part of a large partnership that is restoring high elevation forests across the region. The Conservancy has well-established red spruce restoration projects across West Virginia and at Cransesville Swamp in Maryland. Additional projects are ramping up in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. This work goes well beyond just planting red spruce trees—a complicated task in itself as the trees are not commercially available and seeds must be collected and painstakingly nurtured at each project location. Staff and partners are also planting wetland plants, spreading native seed species in the forest understory, and planting black cherry and yellow birch, to help recreate the whole red spruce community. After years of refining these techniques, red spruce forests are expanding in many of the established project areas.

Help us restore Central Appalachian red spruce forest communities and provide a haven for all of the plants and animals that depend on them.