Small Western North Carolina Non-Profit Produces Trees That Improve Habitat for Rare Animals

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At the top of the hill, at the end of a winding road near Lake Toxaway, sits the Southern Highlands Reserve, an arboretum and research center. A tour reveals red spruce seeds stored in a refrigerator, young spruce trees in the green house, and spruce trees growing in gallon buckets under the open sky. 

Kelly Holdbrooks, executive director of the Southern Highlands Reserve, holds a bag of red spruce seeds that are being held in storage. The collection and rearing of these seeds was funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Red spruce, along with Fraser fir, are the conifer trees found at the tops of the highest mountains in Southern Appalachian, creating habitat for the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel and spruce-fir moss spider. The extent of these forests was drastically reduced one hundred years ago due to unsustainable logging and subsequent forest fire. Today, conservationists are working to restore them.

Young red spruce trees growing in a greenhouse at Southern Highlands Reserve, in western North Carolina. The trees will contribute to efforts to restore red spruce in the southern Appalachians.

Part of that restoration work is simply planting trees, but those trees have to come from somewhere. To create a supply of trees for planting, staff from places like Southern Highlands Reserve work with land managers to collect cones. Seeds are harvested from the cones, then planted in a nursery situation where they are transplanted into larger containers as they grow, until they are carried to the forest for out-planting. In the effort to restore red spruce, Southern Highlands Reserve and others producing the young trees play a foundational role.  

Young red spruce trees being grown at Southern Highlands Reserve, in western North Carolina.