The Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative

SHR works with local, state and federal partners to help restore red spruce to the forests of Western North Carolina.

A primary example of an observed decline in regional biodiversity is that of the spruce-fir forest. SHR’s Red Spruce Project has been designed in response to this marked decline, caused by such human-created problems as extensive logging in the 1900s and the introduction of deadly pests from foreign regions. At one time, the spruce covered vast expanses of the mountain landscape, but now is only found in sparse populations.

Spruce-Fir Forest Report (NCWRC) (185 KB)

A partnership between the Southern Highlands Reserve and The Nature Conservancy began in 2013 with a vision to restore red spruce throughout the mountain ranges of the Southern Appalachians. Increasing the viability and size of these spruce-fir islands in the sky, as well as restoring their connectivity to one another, means a better chance of survival for the forests and all species that inhabit them.

In 2015, a formal partnership between the Southern Highlands Reserve, The Nature Conservancy, and numerous state, federal, non-profit, and university organizations resulted in the development of the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI) with a focus on the restoration of the endangered high elevation spruce-fir forests through reintroducing red spruce to the mountain environments. SASRI released a Spruce Restoration Plan in 2015, identifying key sites and strategies for successful spruce restoration in Western NC and other sites in the Southern Appalachian Mountains.

SASRI Spruce Restoration Plan (link)

Procurement of red spruce for restoration has historically been difficult, as the success of young life stages of plants, such as tree saplings, is critical to establishment, especially in harsh environmental conditions. Red spruce saplings tend to have distinct physiological and morphological differences compared to adult plants, such as increased photosynthetic capacity, carbon allocation, and unique xylem considerations. As a result, juvenile age classes are generally considered more sensitive to environmental stress than mature trees and difficult to produce. The Southern Highlands Reserve has developed methods for producing these trees from local seed that are reliable and effective, resulting in plug to 1 gallon trees for restoration use. Utilizing this system, success rates for both production and restoration have a 90% reported success rate. Other contributing factors to production success include the Reserve's elevation, topography, and climate of the production site, which mimic conditions at final restoration sites, reducing transplant shock.

SHR Presentation Poster on Production (10.2 MB)

Additionally, the Reserve has been working with Chris Kelly, a wildlife biologist with North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, to propagate thousands of red spruce seedlings since 2009. Many of these seedlings have been planted in the Unicoi Mountains in an effort to increase the spruce population in support of rebuilding the plant community crucial to the Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel’s (CNFS) survival in this area. This area hosts one of only nine known populations of the CNFS in all of North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. As a result of the degradation of its primary ecosystem, the CNFS is a federally listed endangered species.

NFSquirrel Wildlife Profile (329 KB)
Carolina Northern Flying Squirrel 5-Year Review (USFWS) (9251 KB)