CASRI: Managing Forests for 
Climate Resilience in West Virginia

By John McFerrin

The Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI) is an ecosystem restoration organization, focusing upon restoration of Red Spruce ecosystems. Katy Barlow and Todd Miller made a presentation at the 2021 Fall Review.  They both work for The Nature Conservancy and are assigned to CASRI.

CASRI is a cooperative venture among about fifteen groups, including the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.  Its vision is to restore Red Spruce to its former range. Historically its range was somewhere between 500,000 and one million acres. Native range extended from Maritime Provinces of Canada west to Maine, southern Quebec, and southeastern Ontario. South into Central New York, Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, and Massachusetts.  It also extended along the Appalachian Mountains, western Maryland, eastern West Virginia, north and West Virginia, western North Carolina, and eastern Tennessee.  It grows from near sea level in the northern part of its original range to about 6,200’ in the southern Appalachian Mountains. 

Now Spruce’s range is 50,000 acres. Extensive logging in the late 1800s and early 1900s reduced much of the mature forest in the Appalachians, including the red spruce-dominated stands.  We went from extensive old growth forests to fragmented islands decimated by logging.  One of the results of the fragmentation is lack of genetic diversity.  Instead of the genetic diversity that results from large, connected stands of Red Spruce, we have the more limited diversity found in small, isolated spruce forests.  CASRI’s vision is to expand and connect remaining patches.

The smaller, unconnected stands are more vulnerable to climate change. The worst case outcome from climate change is that the Red Spruce habitat will disappear from the Central Appalachians.  It will simply be too hot for those species to survive.

The more optimistic outcome is that the species will adapt.  The key to this adaptation is genetic diversity.  In a genetically diverse forest, some of the trees will lack the genetic makeup to survive in a warming climate.  If the gene pool is diverse, however, there is a greater chance that there will be trees in the pool with variations that make it possible to adapt to the warmer climate.  This is why CASRI emphasizes promoting Red Spruce forests with genetic diversity.

CASRI’s research has helped it identify barriers to the adaptation that will be necessary with climate change.  With climate change, species will gradually migrate farther north and to higher elevations.  The species that make up a spruce forest cannot do that if there are barriers to movement, including the barrier of lack of connectivity.

            Most people who know of CASRI even casually know of it as the tree planters (over 1.3 million so far), the Johnny Spruceseed of Central Appalachia.  While it is that, it is more.  Its spruce planting activities are part of its larger role in landscape preservation.  It is guided by extensive research on how landscapes adapt to climate change, what makes a landscape resilient, and what barriers to adaptation exist.  The research has led them to the understanding that resilience is the result of connectivity, biodiversity, ecological functions and adaptive capacity. Its strategy is to manage for these attributes and the ecosystem services that benefit human communities. 

            The results of the work are not just more trees.  The restoration and expansion of spruce forests results in improved soil function, enhanced stream habitat, cool temperatures, increased groundwater recharge, strengthened ability of the Central Appalachians to resist and adapt to climate change, and restored connectivity across the forest range.  The connected network that CASRI seeks to Protect and restore will also provide carbon sequestration, fresh water, oxygen, and recreation.

            CASRI’s approach to forest management includes some aggressive management techniques, including “spruce release.”  Spruce is shade-tolerant, not shade-loving. It can get established in low light conditions and persist in the understory for up to 100 years, but will never reach the canopy without a release event. Those events used to be more common in old-growth forests, but in our younger, secondary forests large release events don’t happen often.            For the spruce forest management that CASRI envision, this spruce release involves eliminating some of the hardwood trees with a goal of achieving a canopy of 30% spruce.  Release of the spruce has resulted in significantly greater growth rates compared to unreleased stands.

CASRI partners have also been restoring red spruce ecosystems on floodplains along headwater streams.  Climate change is driving the increase in frequency and intensity of record-breaking storms. Without tree cover and roots in the soil and downed trees in streams to slow the flow, heavy rains flood downstream communities and carry sediment that reduces the quality of beloved fishing havens.

The Nature Conservancy and CASRI partners are working to restore degraded headwaters to one day resemble a gorgeous red spruce headwater sponge.  Nature also benefits; brook trout populations can thrive in the cooler streams, and when we connect forest patches the rare birds and reptiles can persist.

Note:  This is the last in The Highlands Voice’s summaries of presentations at the 2021 West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Fall Review.  Thanks to all the presenters and those who prepared summaries.  There will be another Fall Review in October, 2022.  Watch for details as we get closer.