20 Years of Red Spruce Ecosystem Restoration

By Dave Saville

Twenty years ago, Highlands Conservancy members were concerned about the Balsam Woolly Adelgid and the exotic insect pest’s decimation of the balsam fir stands in West Virginia.  This genetically unique population of trees, at the southern edge of its range, has been a part of the forests of Canaan Valley and the high elevation spruce country for thousands of years.  We decided to take action.  We collected cones and banked seed to protect the genetic material.  We began growing seedlings to help encourage regeneration. We constructed deer exclosure fences around numerous stands of fir to protect young trees from deer browse.  We hosted workshops and research meetings to learn more from the experts, to help guide or work.

The effort soon expanded to include red spruce. While the red spruce trees of West Virginia are currently healthy and flourishing, they were once suffering from acid rain.  The success of the Clean Air Act has helped to solve this problem. Logging and subsequent fires, however, have reduced by over 90%  the forests of spruce trees that once covering over a million acres of the West Virginia Highlands.  Furthermore, they have been fragmented into hundreds of small “spruce islands,” reducing their wildlife habitat value.

Volunteers have since collected cones, providing seeds, which have grown nearly 1 million spruce and fir seedlings over the ensuing years.  These trees have been grown and planted as part of a coordinated, landscape-scale, restoration program called the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI).  Visit us on Facebook, or at www.restoreredspruce.org.  CASRI is comprised of private, state, federal, and non-governmental organizations which recognize the importance of the red spruce ecosystem for its ecological, aesthetic, recreational, economic, and cultural values.

The seedlings we have grown each year are used for restoration projects by CASRI members including on the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Monongahela National Forest, and other public lands, as well as on private lands owned or managed by the West Virginia Nature Conservancy.  These projects are focused on expanding and connecting existing patches of spruce which increases their wildlife habitat value, as well as their resiliency to climate change.

Our first crop of trees was balsam fir, grown from seed collected by Rodney Bartgis, John and Andrea Dalen, and me, at Blister Swamp, in 1998.  John climbed a 30 ft. balsam fir tree, which was loaded with cones in the top, as far as he could, then shook it.  Rodney, Andrea, and I used our jackets in outstretched arms to catch seeds as they helicoptered to the ground.  A gentle breeze had us bumping and stumbling around beneath the fir tree trying to catch as many as we could.  We grew 1,200 trees from those seeds at a nursery in Minnesota.  They were planted in 2000 as part of the Blister Swamp Conservation Project which fenced the livestock out of a large area of this very special place on private lands in the headwaters of the East Fork of the Greenbrier River.  Of course the Balsam Fir, or “Blister Pine,” is the namesake of the Swamp.

There are very few nurseries that will do this kind of custom growing job. Finding, and keeping, a grower has been a challenge over the years,  The trees we currently grow are grown in a “plug,” 15 Cubic Inches, approximately 2 inches in diameter and 6 inches deep. In December, they are extracted from the container they are grown in, wrapped, boxed, palletized, and stored in a freezer at the nursery.  In March, a 40 ft. tractor trailer freezer truck, hauls all the trees to a warehouse near Morgantown where they are kept in a freezer until we are ready to plant them.  They arrive approximately April 1, and we have into the first week of May or later to get them all planted in the ground.

The advantages of handling frozen trees when they are dormant are several.  For one, it expands the window when planting can take place.  We keep them in the freezer until a week before the planting date giving them just enough time to thaw out.  This gives us 6 weeks or more to get them planted.  There is another big advantage too.  In nature, spruce trees grow foliage in early summer, May, June, July.  Then the foliage hardens off and the plant consumes energy from the sun, combines it with CO2 through photosynthesis and builds a strong root system where it stores the energy.  This primarily happens August – November.  Although the plant is dormant during the winter, every time the temperature goes above freezing, the trees breathe, using some of the stored energy.  Come spring, only whatever reserves are left are used to grow the new foliage.

Because a plant that is frozen, and stored in a freezer, consumes none of its reserves during the winter, it’s able to commit 100% of the energy it stored in the Fall, to foliage and stem growth in the Spring.  This is important because most of the places we plant the trees have some kind of competition; ferns, goldenrod, grasses, etc., so getting the trees to grow above the competition as quickly as possible is important.  A frozen, dormant, container-grown plant, with a concentrated, fibrous root-mass that is full of energy will grow 6-12 inches, or more, in the first year.  This makes not only first year survival much higher, but overall survival, in the fight against competing vegetation, in subsequent years, much greater also.  Plugs are much easier to plant, reducing planting costs, and enabling us to use volunteers successfully.

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy currently has a limited number of red spruce seedlings available, some of those shown in this photograph, for Spring 2019.  The plants are 10-15 inches tall and available April 1st.  100 – Minimum order – $225, 1,000 – $1,150.  Contact Dave Saville at david.saville12@gmail.comto place an order.