Editor’s note: This article is part 2 of the five-part in-depth series Fraught Forests from Carolina Public Press, which examines the challenges of climate change for Western North Carolina’s mountain forests.
Marquette Crockett, the Highlands of Roan stewardship director of the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, is inspecting a tiny red spruce sapling barely poking above the forest floor on a recent blustery and frigid April morning.
The tip of the fledgling red spruce nuzzled behind the trunk of a fallen tree trunk in a grassy opening was recently nibbled, possibly by a rabbit or a deer.
It’s one of 2,500 spruce seedlings that volunteers at Haw Orchard Ridge planted over 9 acres at an elevation of 5,400 feet, just south of Roan High Knob in Mitchell County.
The conservancy purchased the 51-acre property from a willing seller in 2019. Only a portion of the youthful trees will survive hungry animals or the harsh weather conditions of North Carolina’s highest altitudes.
The orchard property is adjacent to a section of Pisgah National Forest. Higher up, it’s evident from the dark canopy of conifers that red spruce is abundant. But here, there’s more hardwood — beech, maples, oak and birch — than spruce.
“In the areas that have a good spruce component, if we can just get that conifer to shoot up and become a cone-bearing tree, it’ll start the whole restoration process,” Crockett said. The point of the project is to create a conifer habitat for conifer-dependent species from Roan High Knob to Grassy Ridge.
The project is among several spawned by the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, a formal partnership of organizations that developed a strategic plan for red spruce restoration in 2013.
The group is made up of private and public organizations, including the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, the Grandfather Mountain Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service and the Nature Conservancy, among others.
The project has developed a restoration plan and is building capacity to store seeds and identify future red spruce restoration projects, including Haw Orchard Ridge.
While some forest plants and animals may thrive in spite of a hotter climate, species that depend on precise growing conditions may be in the greatest peril.
Among them is the spruce-fir forest ecosystem that is a critical breeding ground for animals found in no other place in North Carolina.
These species, such as the moss spider, northern flying squirrel, northern saw-whet owl and Weller’s salamander, have adapted to short growing seasons and relatively chilly conditions.
“This is a really specific habitat for species that do depend on spruce,” Crockett said. “If you lose the spruce, we’ll lose this suite of species.”
Species and habitats
The diminutive and extremely rare spruce-fir moss spider — the world’s smallest tarantula — is just a tenth of an inch long and resides in soggy, high-elevation spruce-fir forests. The elusive spider’s population is much diminished and on the verge of extirpation.
Like other animals, the spider is contained by the habitats in which it lives.
The spruce-fir forests are among the region’s most threatened forest landscapes and are shrinking as a result of climate change.
The species and many others, such as elk, black bear, salamanders, trout, squirrels, owls and a phalanx of other creatures, are citizens of island habitats and can only thrive in specific forested and ecological conditions.
Like families that move from one neighborhood to the next for better schools or safer streets, so too do animal species that seek the right combination of environmental conditions — food, shelter and space — to survive.
For the federally listed endangered moss spider, their sanctuaries are emerald green clumps of moss within disconnected islets of spruce-fir forests.
The future of the spiders and other mountain forest species depends on keeping their islands of habitat connected to a broader ecological landscape troubled by an altered climate.
Tiny little droplets
On a map, Crockett describes the enclaves of spruce-fir forests as “tiny little droplets” existing in the highest elevations of the Southern Appalachians, including Mount Rogers in Virginia, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Black Mountains, Grandfather Mountain, the Balsam Range and the Roan Highlands.
In North Carolina and Tennessee, there are roughly 70,000 acres of spruce-fir divided among small havens of land, isolated from each other.
Extremely cold temperatures during the ice age allowed plants and animals of northern latitudes to extend their ranges south. But as glaciers retreated and the climate warmed, cold-adapted species were isolated in islets of terrain on Southern Appalachia’s highest mountaintops.
Over the last century, the range of spruce-fir forest was diminished by road construction, fire, livestock grazing, recreational development and timber harvesting.
The damage to the spruce-fir forest from the intensity of logging in the early 1900s on the slopes of the Black Mountains and other high-elevation ranges in Western North Carolina was long-lasting.
In addition to the extraction of trees that left slopes bare, blazes set by rail sparks and slash fires to remove flammable waste profoundly damaged the soil and the ability of red spruce and Fraser fir to regenerate.
“Spruce grows slowly and needs lots of sunlight,” said Crockett. “So, once the spruce was logged, hardwoods sprouted up in their place. Especially at relatively lower elevations, spruce just lost the battle.”
The forests are also vulnerable to other looming threats, such as land use changes and development, air pollution, exotic plants, invasive pests and diseases.
In fact, the spruce-fir forest has already been impacted by the lethal balsam woolly adelgid.
The pest was first spotted on Mount Mitchell in 1957, imported from Europe decades earlier. The adelgid has a disastrous impact on Fraser firs, stunting the tree at a modest height before it eventually succumbs to the pest.
Pests aside, a warmer climate, changing rainfall patterns and a longer growing season are expected to aggravate the impact of harmful insects and the spread of invasive plants. As a result, it’s harder to restore these unique islands of habitat as they retreat to higher elevations and continue to cede ground to hardwoods.
SAHC’s Haw Orchard Ridge is one small component of the 65,000-acre conservation area known as the Greater Roan Highlands Landscape.
The project area encompasses a mosaic of private and public land holdings in high elevations in Avery and Mitchell counties in North Carolina and Carter County in Tennessee. The project, home to one of the richest collections of biodiversity in North America, includes 1,500 native plant species.
“The area has always been a destination that people have loved, and there’s a sense that the Roan is really special,” Crockett said.
“There’s always been a strong stewardship ethic among the people who’ve lived here — and I don’t just mean European history. Roan is a special place to the Cherokee. The people who live here have learned how to have a small impact on the land.”
While roughly 20,000 acres of the Greater Roan Highlands Landscape is open to the public, the majority of the land within the landscape is conserved and managed by private landowners or conservation organizations. The area faces the risk of development as more people move to the area, Crockett said.
In 2021, SAHC announced its biggest land donation to date in the Roan Highlands, a 7,500-acre tract donated by conservation philanthropist Tim Sweeney.
In all, the SAHC will manage roughly 12,000 acres in the Roan Highlands.
“The whole idea of conserving relatively large quantities of land that are connected is that, because of the uncertainty of climate change, we don’t know exactly what species are going to be here or what the habitat will look like,” Crockett said.
“We can model and try to figure it out, but the idea is that we’ve conserved enough diversity of habitat and species that there’s going to be something that can take over. What that’ll be, what it’ll look like, how that’ll function is all beyond what we know now.”
Time will tell
Eventually, the saplings planted on Haw Orchard Ridge and other pockets of forest will form an ecological bridge of intact conifers connecting the archipelago of spruce-fir.
“In theory, there will be enough conifer components for animals to move from one place to another even if it’s not solid spruce,” Crockett said. “That’s the hope.”
Yet, the impact of planting trees now and the fate of the animals that depend on the unique havens of habitat may not be obvious for years, perhaps decades.
“That’s the funny thing about being a biologist: You’re constantly doing stuff you may not see in your lifetime,” said Crockett, who has faith in the science and a conservation ethos that presumes bigger landscapes of forest are more resilient to climate change than isolated islands of land.
More contiguous forest acreage means more habitat, more food, more mates and a wider gene pool.
“That just goes back to the basics of conservation in that one big preserve is more valuable than several small preserves,” she said.
“On one hand, we are protecting these incredibly high-elevation and climate-sensitive habitats, but their protection also makes the whole region more climate-resilient.”
Images of the Roan Highlands
Photos by Jack Igelman