Connecting People, Places and Trees: SHR Shares Red Spruce Restoration Best Management Practices at High Elevation Forest Restoration Workshop

December 4, 2017

When people aligned in the same mission gather together and work cooperatively towards a common goal, an interconnectivity emerges. Linking pieces of information, relationships and people together begins to form one larger, more valuable picture. Each individual piece of the puzzle is important alone, but when connected, as the great philosopher Aristotle observed, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Demonstrating this philosophical adage, scientists dedicated to the restoration of red spruce in the Central and Southern Appalachian Mountains gathered on November 14-16 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Sponsored by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Southern Appalachian Man and Biosphere Program, the 2017 High Elevation Forest Restoration Workshop brought together members of the Central and Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiatives (CASRI and SASRI, respectively) to learn from one other’s experiences, strengthen their professional connections, and build momentum towards the ultimate goal of restoring high elevation spruce-fir ecosystems to health and vitality. This was the first joint meeting of CASRI and SASRI, marking a new era in cooperation and partnership towards red spruce restoration in the Appalachian Mountains.

During the workshop, Southern Highlands Reserve Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks shared SHR’s expertise on red spruce propagation with colleagues in forest restoration. Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel also attended the workshop. In turn, Kelly and Eric learned best management practices shared by soil scientists, botanists, forest ecologists and others. The sessions spanned a variety of topics, including a history of 30 years of spruce restoration, soil conditions of the spruce-fir ecosystems, forest hydrologic conditions that increase interconnectivity of microorganisms to increase red spruce resilience, red spruce adaptive traits to stresses like climate change, endangered species and fragmentation of habitat.

Throughout the sessions, a common theme emerged: disconnected fragments of populations result in a decline in the health and resilience of an ecosystem. Red spruce populations in the Southern Appalachian Mountains were once connected to larger populations in the northeast. Following the stresses of heavy logging and wildfires in the early 20th century, spruce-fir forest populations decreased by 90%, leaving the remaining spruce-fir populations fragmented and relegated to only higher elevations. According to SASRI, spruce-fir ecosystems are considered the second most endangered forested ecosystems in the United States.

Due to fragmentation, these few existing populations are likely maladapted to stressors such as pests and changes in climate. Given their preference for higher elevations and predicted weakened resistance to stressors, fluctuations in temperature and climate could threaten the health of spruce-fir ecosystems more dramatically than other species, as red spruce simply have nowhere else to migrate: they’re already at the top of the mountains here in the Southern Appalachians.

The dangers of disconnection affect not only the trees; within the spruce-fir forest ecosystem many species are considered threatened or endangered. The federally-threatened Cheat Mountain Salamander’s spruce-fir habitat was divided by Three Mile Trail in Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, potentially exposing the salamander to dry, hot conditions should it wish to cross. The trail is thought to separate two populations, each remaining on their respective sides to remain in the cool, moist conditions essential to the salamander’s ability to breathe through its skin and mouth. Thanks to the efforts of an organization called Friends of the 500th, in 2016 an underpass was created to promote a connection between the two populations. Scientists are assessing the salamander’s movements through the region this fall to determine the effect the bridge is making for the populations.

Throughout all life systems on this small, blue planet, we find countless examples of symbiotic and mutualist relationships where plants and animals work together to increase their likelihood of survival.  Nature has perfected “co-evolution,” fostering mutual benefit to species that work together. These relationships occur within the boundaries of the same species, between one or more species in the same kingdom, and even between species belonging to different kingdoms. The innate intelligence of nature orders life to work together.

Within the human realm, when we connect with our cohorts to build bridges between individuals and organizations and remove barriers to cooperation, we increase the likelihood our visions will survive and our goals will be achieved. SHR is honored to be a part of the cooperative efforts to restore spruce-fir ecosystems to the mountains of the Southern Appalachian region through SASRI, CASRI and other partnerships that are emerging around this cause. After all, working together is the only way our planet will survive, be the forest, or the trees, or its people.

If you would like to join the many hands working to restore red spruce in our region, there are many ways you can help. Donations to SHR’s red spruce restoration program helps to raise spruce from seed to tree. A gift of $100 fosters the germination of 500 native seeds, a gift of $500 fosters the propagation of 10 red spruce trees from cone to seedling, and a gift of $1,000 nurtures 20 mature red spruce trees planted on public land. As a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, 100% of your donation to SHR is tax deductible. Learn more about SHR’s activities on our website at Learn more about SASRI at