The Transylvania Times -

Spruce Being Restored In The Southern Appalachians


September 11, 2017

Gary Peeples

Kelly Holdbrook, with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Reserve, collects red spruce cones.

Thousands of red spruce trees sit in containers near Lake Toxaway. Nurtured from seed, they're awaiting out-planting, carrying with them biologists' hopes of restoring red spruce in the Southern Appalachians.

During the last ice age, as ice sheets moved south, northern plant and animal populations migrated south with the cold. As the glaciers retreated, those populations followed the cold back North – and uphill to the tops of the Southern Appalachians – the highest peaks east of the Mississippi.

These areas harbor plants and animals usually found much further North – like red spruce. Additionally since the end of that ice age, some of these remnant plants and animals have diverged from their northern cousins – for example, giving us our own fir tree, the Fraser fir. These areas are home to animals found nowhere else in the Southern Appalachians, and in some cases, nowhere else in the world, many of them quite rare. The Carolina northern flying squirrel is on the threatened and endangered species list. As is the spruce-fir moss spider, a spider about as large as a pencil eraser that only lives in the moss mats growing on the forest floor. The result is a forest community that is distinctly southern Appalachian.

In more recent history, one of the defining periods for our landscape was the intense logging and subsequent fires that swept through the Southern Appalachians in the early 20th century. There were myriad impacts, including the destruction of the thick, rich layer of organic material – decaying cones, leaves and other plant material – on the forest floor. This layer of organic material is where spruce and fir trees took root. Without it, these trees lost ground as others moved in. Today, the remnant spruce-fir forests are largely found on conserved land – often National Forest or National Park Service land. But being on conserved land doesn't eliminate all the threats. More recent years have brought the Asian balsam woolly adelgid, an insect that attacks and kills Fraser fir; and acid rain took its toll. However, while the adelgid is still a problem, we've come a long way with controlling acid rain, and forest management has improved tremendously in the past 120 years. Against this backdrop, a team of conservationists has turn their heads to restoring some of that red spruce that was eliminated 100 years ago.

Gary Peeples

Charles Lawson, with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, plants a red spruce seedling.

The red spruce trees awaiting out-planting were raised by the Southern Highlands Reserve, part of a team of organizations working to spread spruce in the Southern Appalachians – the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative. This fall thousands of spruce trees will leave Southern Highlands Reserve, to be planted on the Pisgah National Forest in an effort coordinated by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission that will brings together not only the Southern Highlands Reserve and U.S. Forest Service, but also the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, students from Haywood Community College and Warren Wilson College, and even members of the Daughter of the American Revolution whose ancestors once planted spruce in the area.

(Peeples is a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Asheville.)


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