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Initiative Heals Rare Forest and Recovers Squirrel
by Kristin Haider
Photo Credit: Kristopher Hennig, AmeriCorps with the USFS
In a 1925 article in the Scientific Monthly titled “The Vanishing Spruce,” referred to the high elevation red spruce (Picea rubens) as a “lost tribe.” The lost tribe of red spruce the authors were referring to found refuge in the high elevations in the central Appalachian region during a warming period that took place after the Wisconsin glaciation—part of the last Ice Age, which ended approximately 10,000 years ago. Historically, red spruce was common in both the peaks and valleys of the Appalachians, but as temperatures climbed, the species was forced to retreat north towards New England and southeastern Canada, and to islands of suitable habitat in the high elevation areas of the central Appalachians.
This "lost tribe" metaphor paints a picture of a species that is stranded—disjunct in time and space from the rest of its kind. However, despite its limited range, the species thrived on ridges and peaks, which are cooler and wetter than the valleys around them. These spruce forests have provided important habitat for many rare plants and migratory bird species, and have acted as a stronghold for the federally endangered West Virginia northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus fuscus) and the federally threatened Cheat Mountain salamander (Plethodon nettingi). Unfortunately, in the late 1800s these high elevation red spruce forests were threatened by a growing nation's demand for resources.
Prior to the 19th Century, there were over 500,000 acres (200,000 hectares) of high elevation red spruce forests in West Virginia. Sadly, most of the timber on these acres was harvested for paper products. Appalachian red spruce was also prized for the use in creating fine instruments such as fiddles, guitars, and pianos, and for shipbuilding.
Photo Credit: Kristopher Hennig, AmeriCorps with the USFS
Intense fires often followed the logging operations in the high elevation red spruce forests. These fires, which were commonly the result of stray cinders from the steam trains used to move the timber, often burned hot enough to ignite the thick humus layer that is characteristic of red spruce forest. Fire virtually eliminated the soil – along with the red spruce seed bank – at some sites inhibiting the regeneration of the spruce and giving northern hardwood species the opportunity to take over. Extensive logging and fires took their toll and by the end of the 20th Century, less than 50,000 acres (20,000 ha) of West Virginia's red spruce forests remained. As a result of the loss of this habitat, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel and the Cheat Mountain salamander gained Endangered Species Act protection in the late 1980s.
Fortunately for these two listed species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is supported by a number of partners, through the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI), in efforts to protect and restore historic red spruce-northern hardwood ecosystems across the high elevation landscapes of central Appalachia. The CASRI is a partnership of diverse interests with a common goal of protecting the remaining red spruce stands and restore red spruce ecosystems where they have disappeared. Partnering organizations include Appalachian Mountain Joint Venture, Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Mountain Institute, The Nature Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station, U.S. Forest Service Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, West Virginia Division of Forestry, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, West Virginia State Parks, and West Virginia University.
The partnership formally started in 2007 when some of these partners signed a Memorandum of Understanding that established a broad strategic framework for collaboration on the long-term conservation of the red spruce-northern hardwood ecosystem in West Virginia and Virginia. Their vision was to provide functional habitat that would sustain and enhance the viability of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel. Spruce restoration projects have also had a positive impact on the Cheat Mountain salamander and many migratory bird species, which has brought additional partners to the table.
"CASRI aims to move forest or wetland vegetation and other natural processes back onto a course of development and function that existed prior to the severe logging and associated fires that threw the ecosystem off course," says Elizabeth Byers, project ecologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. "Setting our forests back on course not only preserves West Virginia's native plants but also helps our important wildlife species."
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Byers, WVDNR
High priority areas, including those within close proximity to existing spruce habitat likely to increase connectivity between spruce habitat across the landscape, those near public lands and those including additional sensitive habitat such as cave or karst, have been targeted for conservation delivery efforts.
In 2012 alone, CASRI partners raised $725,800 for on-the-ground projects, logged over 2,000 volunteer hours spent planting 34,275 native tree seedlings on roughly 206 acres (80 ha)—bringing the total acres planted since 2006 to 750 (300 ha). Additionally, partners conducted habitat restoration on 106 acres (40 ha) by releasing red spruce from the understory forest by commercial and non-commercial forestry practices, and purchased and permanently protected 590 acres (340 ha) of high elevation red spruce habitat.
The CASRI's commitment to the long-term conservation of the red spruce-northern hardwood ecosystem in the states of West Virginia and Virginia has been effective as evidenced by the proposed delisting of the West Virginia northern flying squirrel from the list of federally endangered species. Whether or not the West Virginia northern flying squirrel remains on the endangered species list, the CASRI partners will remain committed to restoring the high elevation red spruce ecosystems of the central Appalachian region. What began as an endangered species recovery effort has grown into a landscape level ecosystem restoration project that will benefit numerous other plant and animal species.
Kristin Haider, a biologist in the Service's West Virginia Field Office and AmeriCorps volunteer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-636-6586, ext. 25.
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