By Justin Hynicka, Manager of Forest Conservation

I try not to let the weather dictate my camping plans. Even so, the bleak weather forecast had me hedging on a trip to Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest three weeks ago. It is one of the closest wilderness areas to our nation’s capital and because it is such a spectacular place, I was ultimately convinced to stick to the original plan. Three hours later (sans traffic) and… the access road is still closed for the season. Down here it’s overcast and drizzling but not too cold, so we joined the other half-dozen or so cars on the side of the road, donned our backpacks and took to the road on foot.

At the top of Dolly Sods on this day, it is downright unpleasant. It’s cold, windy and raining, and because of the rain there is about 3 inches of standing water everywhere. Fifteen-foot-tall red spruce growing closely together along the swollen stream are the only windbreak in sight in this otherwise rocky and blueberry-laden landscape, so we scavenge among the spruce for a flat spot with as little standing water as possible and pitch our tent.
Although still spectacular in its current state, it’s hard to fathom that just over 100 years ago Dolly Sods was part of an extensive 500,000-acre, old-growth red spruce forest capping the highlands of Appalachia. To start, the ground would have been much softer with up to 9 feet of leaves and other organic matter blanketing the ground as both the weather and spruce leaf chemistry lead to slow rates of decomposition. Now largely gone, this thick layer of organic matter made a lasting impression on the landscape that is easily visible today by bleaching lower soil layers white with natural organic acids and giving streams in this region their characteristic amber color as spruce and hemlock leaves were broken down into soluble tannins. For this reason, restoring red spruce is one of our strongest carbon-sequestration projects.

Both old trees and organic-rich soils are important for West Virginia northern flying squirrel habitat. The typical red spruce can grow 60 to 90 feet tall with a trunk 2 to 4 feet in diameter. In winter, groups of squirrels share nests in tree cavities previously constructed by woodpeckers, while in summer they are more likely to nest in branches at the tops of spruce trees that they glide to and fro on flaps of extra skin between their front and back legs. Fungi are abundant in the organic rich soils and are eaten by the squirrels, which in-turn help disperse fungal spores throughout the forest.

Due to habitat loss, the West Virginia northern flying squirrel was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1985, but was subsequently and controversially de-listed in 2013 despite limited population data.

Along with more than 9 million acres of other virgin forest in West Virginia, red spruce forests were felled in an abrupt 40-year span between 1880 and 1920 in a perfect storm of forest technology innovation. The Shay geared locomotive provided access in and out of the rugged terrain, while the ban saw provided the firepower to efficiently cut the felled trees up. Band saw mills could process trees from up to 17 acres of virgin forest DAILY! At the peak of the timber industry, 83 band saw mills were in operation along with over 1,400 other facilities (Logging of West Virginia Forests).

Only 5 percent of old-growth red spruce forests remain today but there are multiple efforts underway to help recover this diverse forest ecosystem. To date, American Forests has helped to restore 941 acres of red spruce forest by planting 157,465 trees. In 2017, we will plant an additional 200 acres with 75,000 red spruce and other native plants on abandoned mine land where, without restoration, trees cannot grow. This work is part of a collective 10-year effort including American Forests and other groups from the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI) to remake an entire mountain by de-compacting former mine lands, planting new trees, creating wetlands and thinning over-stocked red spruce forests to improve forest health.

In two weeks, American Forests staff will be on an overnight adventure to plant red spruce trees in Monongahela National Forest. My fingers are crossed for good weather.