CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — Red spruce, an evergreen tree that grows in West Virginia’s higher elevations, has been mostly destroyed in the Mountain State by clearcutting and wildfires, and according to researchers at West Virginia University, climate change is threatening the 10% of red spruce forests that remain.

(Courtesy: WVDNR)

According to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, red spruce forests and woodlands in West Virginia are located primarily in Tucker, Randolph, Pendleton, Grant and Pocahontas counties with small areas in Webster and Greenbriar counties. However, the habitable area from

According to the WVDNR, because red spruce occupies the highest and coldest niche in the state, they are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

West Virginia University researchers Donald Brown and James Thompson are working toward restoring some of the original tree habitats by studying the long-term effects of warming temperatures on red spruce and their ecosystem. 

Brown’s research on the federally threatened Cheat Mountain salamanders has highlighted the threat climate change is to one of West Virginia’s most unique trees.

The red spruce species follows the cool, wet Appalachian ridges down into North Carolina, but rising temperatures limit the chances of survival. 

Forest near Valley Head, West Virginia (WBOY image)

“They’re already at the top of the mountain,” Brown said. “There’s nowhere to go. Some of the research has been pretty dire, essentially projecting that we’re going to lose red spruce this century.” 

Current genetics research offers some hope. Researchers can identify seeds most likely to persist in warming temperatures and manipulate what is planted for the best chance for survival. 

Thompson’s research focuses on the soil that red spruce inhabit, which indicates a dynamic connection between the trees and the rich, spongy soil from which they grow, even at the southern end of their range. 

“The soil types and our climate are right, so those red spruce are able to survive,” he said. “But as the red spruce ecosystems persist, they start to change the soil even more and create certain characteristics that are unique within West Virginia. When we find a red spruce, we find certain types of soils.”  

This suggests that areas without trees that have the same spongy soil may be places where red spruce used to grow and places where they could be planted for restoration, according to Thompson. He is now using this logic to make a map of possible locations for restoration projects.

“Soils are essentially a long-term record of the past,” he said. “They carry the imprint of what’s happened in the past and that imprint persists. Even though some of those areas haven’t had spruce on them for 100 years or more, they remember that they used to support red spruce forests because they maintain that evidence in the soil.” 

Thompson said the benefits of restoring red spruce forests include carbon storage that could help combat climate change, and red spruce have a higher water holding capacity which could limit downstream flooding. 

The Central Appalachian Red Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI) was formed to restore red spruce to the landscape and now includes partners such as the Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and The Nature Conservancy. Many WVU scientists have contributed to the initiative’s efforts; now, both Brown’s and Thompson’s research plays an important role in furthering restoration. 

Brown believes it’s the collective effort that drives the organization’s progress and, ultimately, the success of the volunteer initiative.   He and Thompson are also collaborating on a guide for red spruce restoration that has more than 30 contributors.

While restoration efforts continue with input from researchers like Brown and Thompson, red spruce grows slowly compared to other trees. This means that today’s seedlings will long outlive the hands that plant them.  

“We won’t see the results in our lifetime,” Brown said. “We’re really looking at decades to centuries to get to this mature forest stage that we’re ultimately interested in.”