WHITMER — Five years ago, volunteers had to kneel down to plant red spruce seedlings, each a foot tall, along the upper reaches of Gandy Creek bordering the Monongahela National Forest in the highlands of Randolph County.
Keith Fisher and Mike Powell were among those planting the native conifers. Last week, as they walked through, they had to look up to see the tops of some of the former seedlings now flourishing on the site.
“Some of these trees have been growing a foot or more a year,” said Fisher, director of land conservation for the West Virginia chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
“This one’s had about 18 inches of new growth,” said Powell, TNC’s state land conservation practitioner, as he eyed the needle-studded spire extending above one spruce’s highest branches. The two were walking around the 555-acre conservation easement owned by Steve Callan, of Morgantown.
Since 2007, when a coalition of state and federal agencies and conservation groups, including TNC, the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, launched the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI), 584,000 red spruce seedlings have been planted in and around the Monongahela National Forest, home to most of the evergreen’s natural range in West Virginia.
Starting in April, weather permitting, the coalition will launch its most ambitious annual reforestation effort yet by planting an additional 80,000 red spruce seedlings in the state.
A blend of red spruce and northern hardwoods once covered more than 1 million acres of northeastern West Virginia’s highest terrain, but clearcut logging and widespread forest fires in the late 1800s and early 1900s left just a few hundred acres untouched and intact. Over the decades that followed, hardwood species took over much of the terrain formerly occupied by the spruce.
Today, about 50,000 acres of red spruce-dominant second-generation forest remain in West Virginia, mainly in isolated patches within or adjacent to the Monongahela.
“The idea is to use planting to connect those patches of red spruce, and then let nature take over” the restoration process, Fisher said. “Here, we’re creating a habitat bridge through private land, connecting a peninsula of Forest Service land on Pharis Knob with Forest Service lands in the Laurel Fork Wilderness and the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area.”
CASRI’s goal is to eventually establish about 150,000 acres of connected red spruce-northern hardwoods forest on the Monongahela, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Preserve and other adjacent private and state-managed lands.
Red spruce, which can grow to heights of 130 feet, mainly at elevations above 3,000 feet, was logged for use as pulpwood for paper mills, for the ship-building industry and for use in making such musical instruments as violins, guitars and pianos. Red spruce from West Virginia was also used to build struts for at least one model of the Wright Brothers’ experimental aircraft.
Stands of red spruce provide a dense, all-season canopy that provides a cool, moist micro-climate during the summer months, creating habitat for 240 rare plant and animal species, including the threatened Cheat Mountain salamander and the West Virginia Northern flying squirrel, recently removed from the federal endangered species list due at least in part to red spruce restoration work completed so far.
Red spruce seedlings used in the restoration effort come from native seed stock collected annually by crews of volunteer cone-gatherers led by Dave Saville, of Morgantown. Seed from the cones is sent to a large commercial nursery in Washington state. “There, they are grown for two years in a controlled environment, then pulled out of the ground and shipped here frozen,” Fisher said. “The different CASRI partners then divvy them up.”
Blends of northern hardwoods, including yellow birch and basswood, are planted along with red spruce on relatively open areas, like the former pastures that make up the 555-acre conservation easement along Gandy Creek, in an effort to restore the landscape’s historic mix of trees. Canaan balsam firs, the state’s only native fir species, are also being re-established at the Gandy Creek site.
But to reach CASRI’s 150,000-acre goal, “planting alone won’t get us there,” Powell said. “In some places, the hardwood canopy is so thick, we’re only seeing an inch or two of red spruce growth each year.”
In such locales, “we’re using silvicultural techniques to release red spruce from the hardwood overstory,” said Kent Karriker, forest ecologist with the Monongahela National Forest. Those techniques include creating canopy openings by removing strips of bark from the circumferences of trees — a process known as girdling — to kill spruce-stunting hardwoods, or by cutting down selected hardwoods to let in sunlight and accelerate spruce maturity.
On former strip mine sites atop Cheat Mountain in the Monongahela, bulldozers rigged with hydraulic rippers have been used to loosen compacted soil to accommodate red spruce planting. At one 90-acre former mine site used to test the technique, 85 percent of the red spruce seedlings planted there survived. Project wide, the seedling survival rate is about 90 percent.
“We’ve done a couple thousand acres of restoration on old strip mine lands,” Karriker said. Other reforestation efforts on the Mon include treating selected stands of hemlock to resist the deadly hemlock woolly adelgid, now sweeping through the state, decommissioning and returning unused logging roads to the natural landscape, and applying invasive species controls to nearly 2,000 acres of the forest.
The U.S. Forest Service recently announced that it has posted a 9 percent increase in the pace of forest restoration since 2012, despite having more than 50 percent of its operating budget being used to fight western wildfires.
“We’re happy to see that the advances we’ve made in West Virginia are being reflected nationally,” said Thomas Minney, state director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia. “We’re bringing back our iconic mountaintop forests through restoration efforts in the Monongahela National Forest and elsewhere, providing habitat for everything from migrating songbirds to native brook trout.”
Reach Rick Steelhammer at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5169, or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.