What is SASRI and Why Do We Care?

December 4, 2018

endangered, conservation, squirrel, flying squirrel

The Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI) 2018 annual meeting took place on Thursday, November 8 at the Bent Creek Experimental Forest outside of Asheville, North Carolina.

This partnership of people from diverse interests was formed in 2013 for the common goal of restoring spruce-fir ecosystems across high elevation landscapes of the Southern Blue Ridge. Referred to as “Islands in the Sky”, these pocket ecosystems at one time covered vast expanses of mountain landscape, but are now only found sparsely in western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

After the Everglades in South Florida, spruce-fir forests are the second most endangered ecosystem in the United States. Over the last century, they have been greatly reduced across the southern Appalachians largely due to logging. Adding insult to injury, severe slash fires 100 years ago were followed by rains washing away the seed and soil profile necessary for species regeneration. Growth is slow at high elevations making the regeneration that much more of a challenge. Most red spruce present today were planted in the 1940s as a restoration effort after those fires, with current restoration efforts still attempting to replace what was lost then. Today the spruce-fir forests face increased pressure from acid rain, rising temperatures, poor management and drought.

Red spruce was chosen as the best species for restoration because it is the conifer least in decline. Another significant 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. Also, southern Carolina flying squirrels carry a harmful gut parasite that they pass along to northern Carolina flying squirrels where their territories overlap. The oil from red spruce staminate cones that the squirrels feed on suppresses that parasite, protecting their overall health. Not only home to the northern Carolina flying squirrels, these forests also support the federally endangered spruce-fir moss spider as well as other species of conservation concern such as the norther saw-whet owl, black-capped chickadee and several salamander species.

SASRI, comprised of private, state, federal and non-governmental organizations, recognizes the importance of this ecosystem for its ecological, aesthetic, recreational, economic and cultural values. Some of the other organizations involved include the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Blue Ridge Discovery Center, Grandfather Mountain Foundation, NC Forest Service and Appalachian Mountain Joint Venture. As a founding organization and continuing Steering Committee and Planting and Propagation Committee members, we spent the day with our partners and interested parties discussing updates and findings from the past year. SHR Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks and Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel gave a presentation on the status of our red spruce propagation and discussed some of the coming projects to propagate for new public land sites.

In the spirit of the Reserve’s mission to protect and conserve native plants and their ecosystems, we are dedicated to helping reverse the decline and reinvigorate the vitality of spruce-fir forests in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Due to our high-elevation location, our Nursery Complex is uniquely poised to grow red spruce seedlings successfully. Currently, there is no other facility in the southeastern US growing red spruce for restoration, which makes the Reserve’s ability to continue these propagation efforts for this partnership very important.

Photo provided by USGS