On September 18th and 19th, representatives from the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI) gathered in Black Balsam to restore red spruce on public lands in Western NC. Over 900 young red spruce trees were carried on foot and horseback by dozens of volunteers and members of SASRI to their new home deep in the woods on public lands. In two days, these dedicated conservationists made at least seven trips down the Flat Laurel Branch Trail, some logging 14 miles for the day. The red spruce trees were grown by Southern Highlands Reserve as part of a larger long-term effort to restore red spruce to its high-elevation native habitat on public lands in the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains.
Typically found at high elevation mountaintops in our region, red spruce are keystone species in the endangered Spruce-Fir ecosystems. These ecosystems, native to our region, are the second most endangered ecosystems in the U.S. A once-thriving ecosystem, Spruce-Fir forests were decimated by the logging activities and wildfires of the early 1900’s. Composed primarily of red spruce and Frasier fir, these conifer-based ecosystems are home to endangered species like the Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel, and species that are threatened or are of special concern such as the Northern Saw-whet Owl, the Black-capped Chickadee, the Rock Shrew and the Pigmy Salamander. SASRI members have identified the areas of land in the Southern Appalachian Mountains that are the highest priority for restoration and will be coordinating other restoration activity days like those at Black Balsam this past September.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Sue Cameron was thrilled to see this milestone accomplished: “I am so excited about the successful completion of the first spruce restoration project in the Southern Appalachians at Black Balsam. It was made possible by the hard work of dedicated professionals and hard core volunteers and is a testament to the value of the SASRI partnership. What excites me most is the knowledge that we can make a difference to species living on the edge on our highest mountains. I see spruce restoration as one of the most important steps we can take in recovering the Carolina northern flying squirrel.”
Human intervention can have catastrophic effects on an ecosystem, which is a delicate balance of botanical and animal interactions and systems, referred to by many as the “web of life.” The restoration site was selected by the U.S. Forest Service to help support a population of endangered Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel, a species that relies on the fungi that grow in the soil where red spruce grow. Likewise, the red spruce depends on the squirrel for its maintenance of the fungi. These species work together in a symbiotic relationship; without a keystone species like the Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel, the ecosystem would fall apart.
Partnership is a critical component of the red spruce restoration program’s success. SASRI itself is a collaboration-based organization, bringing partners in conservation around the table working towards a common goal: restoration of Spruce-Fir ecosystems. The organization is comprised of federal, state and nonprofit organizations including the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, The Nature Conservancy, SHR, and others. Each organization brings a specific set of talents and resources to reach the goals laid out in SASRI’s red spruce restoration plan. As SHR Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks explains, “This restoration project is the result of the years of hard work completed by SASRI, a commitment from organizations, agencies, and volunteers to the ecosystems of the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains, and a great example of collaboration and partnerships in conservation.”
For its part, SHR will grow red spruce trees that will be planted on the lands prioritized for restoration by SASRI. in addition to growing thousands of red spruce in its Nursery Complex, SHR maintains an active role in all aspects of red spruce restoration including collecting cones, performing education and outreach, organizing restoration days, and mobilizing volunteers.
Now with momentum underway, new partnerships in red spruce restoration are emerging. Last year, SHR entered into a formal agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to support SHR’s activities to grow red spruce. Earlier this year, SHR was awarded an Open Space Preservation Grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area (BRNHA) to support SHR’s role in SASRI, including preparing red spruce seeds for planting, potting up red spruce from smaller pots into larger ones, and to mobilize volunteers to help with these tasks.
With the support of the grant provided by the BRNHA as a new partner in red spruce restoration, a partnership emerged between SHR and the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Waightstill-Avery Chapter, who eagerly jumped at the opportunity to get their hands in the soil and helped with the propagation of red spruce red spruce trees from cone collection, to germination, to growing them to small mature trees that withstand planting in a mixed forest canopy. In addition, they served as educational docents during the planting days in September, sharing information about red spruce restoration and its importance and telling stories of the DAR’s involvement in red spruce restoration for nearly a century. Local non-profit The Pisgah Conservancy also has recently partnered with SHR in red spruce restoration, helping to call volunteers to action in red spruce restoration activities.
Thanks to the work of Haywood Community College’s Forestry Program and students from Warren Wilson College, over spruce trees have now been planted on the restoration site near Black Balsam. SHR Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks commented, “I am overwhelmed with gratitude to all the volunteers and SASRI members that helped make this restoration planting a huge success. Working together with others for hours carrying red spruce trees on a rocky and wet trail reminded me of how much I love my job and how fortunate we are to have these forests.”
The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” applies also to raising a forest: without the cooperative nature of SASRI, resulting in conservation professionals joining forces across organizational boundaries, and without their commitment continuing for many years, or their ability to enroll others to the cause, this forest would not have been planted. The forest itself stands as testimony to the value of collaboration towards a common goal, conservation and restoration of ecosystems vital to the survival of our natural heritage.