Southern Highlands Reserve was honored to join the United States Forest Service (USFS) on Friday, October 5, to welcome 17 members of the German Forestry Society (GFS), led by Hans C. Rohr, to Flat Laurel in the Pisgah National Forest. The group included a wilderness researcher, high-ranking government forestry officials, and an advisor to German Prime Minister Angela Merkel on matters of the environment. This unprecedented visit stems from the origin of the USFS.
In 1888, George Washington Vanderbilt visited Asheville for relief from malaria-like symptoms. Captivated by the scenic beauty of the landscape, he purchased property and built the mansion later named Biltmore. Eventually owning more than 125,000 acres of forest, including virgin stands, Vanderbilt hired Fredrick Law Olmsted to design the estate grounds. Olmsted brought along Gifford Pinchot, one of the only two foresters in the U.S. at the time, who came to be known as the father of American forestry. Pisgah Forest was the first regularly managed forest with the goal of earning income from timber planted in areas left bare from fire, grazing and previous logging.
Pinchot recommended his successor, Dr. Carl A. Schenck, a German forester who opened the Biltmore School of Forestry in 1898. Congress later designated the school “The Cradle of Forestry” in America’s Forest Discovery Center, thereby establishing the first forestry school in the nation . Over the past few decades, John C. Palmer, a now-retired Haywood Community College forestry professor, has been visiting Germany to learn more about Dr. Schenck. He established a relationship with Schenck’s descendants, as well as between the Society of American Foresters (SAF) and the GFS. A 2014 visit by the SAF to Germany led to this reciprocal visit by the GFS to see the birthplace of American forestry and learn about current USFS practices in the southern Appalachians and coastal plain.
Pisgah District Ranger Dave Casey led the talk, beginning with an overview of the district, stating that U.S. forests are prized as resources for recreation, and that over half of the district is not managed commercially while wilderness areas are not managed at all. Casey was joined by Rachel Dickson of the Pisgah Zone Silviculture Program, and the two explained that as public servants, the USFS has responded to the wishes of the public to make timber production less of a priority. Also, compared to those in the West, national forests in the eastern U.S. do not contribute a large volume to timber production. As such, current USFS efforts include restoration, driven by ecological motives to improve forest diversity and health.
Over the last century, spruce-fir forests have been greatly reduced across the southern Appalachians due to logging. Balds visible today are the result of severe fires 100 years ago followed by rains which washed away the seed and soil profile necessary for species regeneration, coupled with slow growth at the high elevation. Red spruce present today were planted in the 1940s as a restoration effort after those slash fires, with current restoration efforts still attempting to restore what was lost.
Red spruce was considered the best restoration candidate because it is the conifer species least in decline. Another motivating factor for choosing red spruce was to help the Carolina northern flying squirrel, a federally endangered species. This squirrel feeds on mycorrhizal fungi, or truffles, that grow at the roots of red spruce. Additionally, southern Carolina flying squirrels carry a harmful gut parasite that they pass along to northern Carolina flying squirrels at the boundary overlap. When eaten, the oil from red spruce needles suppresses that harmful gut parasite, protecting the health of the squirrels.
The Flat Laurel site was selected for a visit on the GFS tour to discuss red spruce restoration, illustrated by the 2017 planting of 900 red spruce under yellow birch across five acres. This year, USFS will girdle the overstory to gradually release the young red spruce trees from competition. This process involves strict parameters and will exclude deciduous trees under seven inches in caliper, yellow birch with exfoliating bark used by northern Carolina flying squirrels to build dreys (nests), and trees with cavities that can be used by the squirrels as dreys. In collaboration with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), the planting location was based on proximity to larger NCWRC lands, thereby producing stepping stones to more habitat.
As a founding member of the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI), formed to restore red spruce and the vitality of spruce-fir forests in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, SHR Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks discussed our support as propagator and provider of the young trees. Holdbrooks spoke to the group about our strategy for red spruce propagation to produce the highest possible success rates once planted in the wild. We’ve learned that planting fewer trees between three and four years of age is more successful than planting a larger quantity of plugs (younger trees). This way, the trees are tall and strong enough to survive abundant leaf-fall from deciduous hardwoods. Additionally, since no one is coming back to water after planting, it is important for these larger root balls to hold as much moisture as possible. Not only are these trees larger, they are also free from being rootbound because we grow them in specially designed Rootmaker pots.
Thanks to these propagation strategies, trees that survive the first year in the wild will most likely live a full lifespan of 350 years or more, barring natural disaster. One year after planting the 900 Flat Laurel trees, we estimate a mortality rate of less than 10%—an extremely successful conservation project. Dave Casey stated the USFS, “initially started restoration efforts by transplanting naturally regenerated seedlings which is unsustainable and drastically reduced their capacity to restore red spruce at a meaningful scale. Thanks to SHR—interwoven into our restoration efforts from planning, outreach, education and implementation—we are now making a meaningful impact together on red spruce restoration.”
 Citizen Times