Plant the Town Red: Restoring West Virginia’s Red Spruce Ecosystem

A freshly planted red spruce seedling. Photo: Dylan Jones/Highland Outdoors

The gravel crunches under our boots as we hoof it up the relentless grade of Forest Road 80, a reconditioned logging road that switchbacks its way up the western slope of Cabin Mountain in West Virginia’s Canaan Valley.

The morning sun, already bright through the leafless forest canopy, appears even brighter as it reflects off lingering pockets of snow on the brown forest floor. Two cars full of hikers on their way to Dolly Sods come lumbering up behind us, causing our group of nearly 50 volunteers to part like the Red Sea. The driver of the first car rolls down the window and asks what the hell we’re doing.

“We’re planting red spruce trees, would you like to join us?” replies Dawn Washington, our crew leader and wildlife biologist at the Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge. The hikers respectfully decline, offer some kudos, and continue on their way up the road.

We eventually reach two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trucks, the beds loaded with metal planting bars called dibbles and grocery bags full of spruce seedlings—3,500 to be exact. Dawn gives us a crash course on how to plant a spruce seedling: stab out a hole with the dibble, drop the seedling in the hole, fill in the air space around the plug, and pack the area around the shoot with the remaining soil and organic material.

According to Washington, these seedlings have an astounding success rate of around 90%—a rarity in the world of volunteer-driven restoration—meaning that, hopefully, around 3,100 of these seedlings will get to work on transforming this portion of Cabin Mountain back to its original form.

She instructs us to work in groups of two and to try our best to space all the seedlings around 10-feet apart. My girlfriend, Nikki, and I grab our materials and start planting our way up the steep slope of Cabin Mountain.

The seedlings are 6 to 12 inches in size. Photo: Dylan Jones/Highland Outdoors

As we pop seedling after seedling into the ground, I start to imagine what this area could look like in 10, 20, 50 years. Taking a breather, I notice the prominent stand of red spruce atop a knob floating in the distance like a vibrant green island in an undulating sea of grey—that’s what this entire area should look like.

The red spruce ecosystem once covered over one million acres of the West Virginia highlands, but the clearcutting spree of the early 20th century reduced that once-vast forest to just around 50,000 acres—five percent. Today, only 30,000 acres remain. Gone with the sprawling forest are crucial wildlife corridors, natural temperature controls for cold water fisheries, and one of the greatest natural carbon sequestrations on the continent.

But a dedicated and growing movement is looking to change that. Spearheaded by the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI), staffed with volunteers from a variety of NGOs like the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and supported by government agencies like the U.S. Fish and and Wildlife Service and U. S. Forest Service, the era of cooperative red spruce ecosystem restoration is underway.

At the center of the movement is Dave Saville, a passionate conservationist who could easily be considered the grandfather of red spruce restoration. Beginning in the 1990s as a proponent of restoring balsam fir—a species ravaged by the balsam wooly adelgid beetle—Saville begin collecting, banking, and sprouting balsam fir seeds to protect and restore the species. “In the process of doing that, I developed a protocol,” he said. “We started looking around at red spruce to do the same thing.”

Nowadays, Saville works with volunteers on the arduous and tedious task of gathering red spruce cones from red squirrel caches, drying and tumbling the cones to remove the seeds, and shipping the seeds to be expertly sprouted by commercial tree growers in the Pacific Northwest. The seedlings, which cost one dollar a piece, are frozen and shipped back to West Virginia, where they must be thawed prior to planting.

Red spruce restoration has now been ongoing for nearly 16 years. According to Washington, who has been involved since the start, 97,139 spruce and fir trees have been planted over 630 acres in the Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge. She was quick to place the limelight back on Saville.

“There were a group of biologists and land managers who realized that they wanted to start doing some spruce restoration but they couldn’t do it on their own,” she said. “Dave was pretty monumental in getting the production of the red spruce going. He does a lot of gathering of the seed processing and shipping to get the seeds grown. It’s a big task; it’s a lot of risk for him to do this. It’s gone pretty well in the last couple years.”

According to CASRI, 63,670 red spruce seedlings and 53,700 native plants were planted on more than 150 acres of high-elevation lands in 2018, bringing the restoration total to more than 7,400 acres since the project’s inception. An estimated 125 volunteers planted more than 8,200 red spruce trees in 2018 through the various volunteer efforts.

But the restoration effort wasn’t always this cooperative. Saville remembers a time when red spruce conservationists were “the enemy” of the Forest Service. Back in the 1990s, the Forest Service—and the state of West Virginia—were focused on managing forests for timber and mast trees for game. Because red spruce isn’t valuable for timber or mast, it was all but removed from the landscape to make way for early successional hardwood forest.

“Foresters viewed the forest in terms of board feet and dollar signs, and no real interest in conservation but increasing the value of timber as a resource,” Saville said. “A lot of wildlife is dependent on the red spruce ecosystem; there’s a lot of interest to protect and restore this habitat. Suddenly, [the Forest Service] was amenable to protecting things; you had people that wanted to protect the forest. That’s driven the federal agencies to work on red spruce restoration.”

After the dirt settled, our crew of volunteers was able to lovingly reintroduce 2,500 red spruce seedlings across 10 acres of Cabin Mountain.

As we drove back down Forest Road 80 toward the fertile cradle of Canaan Valley, I began to notice red spruce saplings from previous plantings—some just a few feet tall, others approaching five or six feet. Nikki and I started to see the otherwise bleak and dormant, leafless forest for something more: a tableau of a righteous scene that will be playing out for centuries to come, the retaking of Canaan Valley by the once-triumphant and dominant red spruce.

Dylan Jones is publisher and editor-in-chief of Highland Outdoors, West Virginia’s only independent outdoor adventure magazine. He currently resides in Davis, West Virginia, with his partner Nikki Forrester. Dylan holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in public administration, both from West Virginia University. When he’s not hunched over his computer, you can find him hunched over his handlebars mountain biking in Canaan Valley.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published by Highland Outdoors Magazine in 2018. It has been updated with the latest numbers from CASRI on their 2018 restoration efforts.

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