A red spruce sapling is displayed at the Southern Highlands Reserve in Lake Toxaway, N.C., on Nov. 4. (Jacob Biba for The Washington Post)
Advocates are hoping to draw attention to the challenges the trees face in a warmer, drier world
November 28, 2022 at 7:00 a.m. EST
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Lake Toxaway, N.C. — In a kitchen near her office at the Southern Highlands Reserve, perched 4,500 feet high in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Kelly Holdbrooks slides a paper grocery bag out of a cabinet.
She pulls out a half-dozen pine cones and holds them to the afternoon light, explaining that the seeds inside will one day be grown into saplings and planted throughout these mountains.
“This is what came off Ruby,” says Holdbrooks, the reserve’s executive director.
That would be Ruby, a.k.a Picea rubens, a 78-foot-tall red spruce that U.S. Forest Service officials had harvested the day before, a stone’s throw from the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Pisgah National Forest.
Barely 24 hours later, Ruby lay on a trailer inside a cavernous warehouse at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center, an hour’s drive away. Workers were preparing the towering tree for its two-week tour through North Carolina and Virginia to Washington, where after its official lighting Tuesday, it will spend the holiday season shimmering on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
But far from Capitol Hill, Holdbrooks and other advocates are hoping Ruby’s moment in the national spotlight will bring long-overdue attention to the importance of red spruce trees — and to the ways a species once threatened by logging and acid rain now faces the perils of a fast-warming climate. They also hope the choice of a red spruce as the Capitol Christmas Tree will bolster the decades-long effort to restore the trees in their natural habitats throughout the Appalachians.
“They are iconic,” Holdbrooks said.
She noted that the pyramid-shaped trees, distinguished by hardy, yellow-green needles, provide a key habitat to a range of plants and animals, including endangered species such as the Carolina northern flying squirrel and the spruce-fir moss spider — one of the world’s smallest tarantulas.
And humans fortunate enough to trek through a cool, moist red spruce forest, with its spongy turf underfoot, encounter an almost mystical escape. “It’s got this J.R.R. Tolkien thing going on,” Holdbrooks said.
She and an array of government officials, conservation workers and volunteers have ambitious plans to ensure that red spruces — relics of the last Ice Age — thrive in these mountains for generations to come.
“It pushes me every day to work harder,” she said.
‘The elephant in the room’
Red spruces have endured an array of scourges.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the species was prized by loggers hacking their way through East Coast forests. The spruce’s light color and weight, its straight grain and resilience made it ideal for building musical instruments, making paper and even sawing into lumber for construction.
“It was just a very high-quality wood,” said Stephen Keller, an associate professor of plant biology at the University of Vermont who has long studied the red spruce.
Years of heavy logging sharply reduced the presence of the stately trees, which once dominated forests throughout the Appalachian range. Slash burning and sparks from trains that were used to haul timber out of the forests triggered fires that further harmed the species.
“There was a lot of peat and organic matter, and that was just fuel for these fires,” Keller said.
The 2022 Capitol Christmas tree is a red spruce from the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina, a tree species threatened by climate change. (Video: The Washington Post)
Another serious hazard arrived decades later, when industrial pollution led to the problem of acid rain in the 1960s and ’70s. That was particularly harsh on red spruces, Keller said, because acid rain leached calcium out of the soil, the trees became susceptible to damage from midwinter warming followed by cold snaps.
The Clean Air Act eventually helped resolve that problem, and researchers started to see a slow recovery of the red spruce.
Meanwhile, the invasion of the balsam woolly adelgid, an exotic aphid-like insect from Europe that particularly ravaged Fraser firs, added yet another menace. One research paper found the pest “has wreaked considerable ecological havoc” throughout spruce-fir forests in the Southern Appalachians.
These days, however, climate change poses the most profound threat.
“The elephant in the room,” Holdbrooks calls it.
Because red spruces prefer cool, humid environments, more-extreme midsummer heat and drier conditions have put the trees under increasing stress.
Keller said numerous models that seek to predict the future distribution of the tree species “show severe reduction in suitable climate throughout most of its range.”
Katy Shallows, the restoration strategy manager for the Central Appalachians program at the Nature Conservancy, acknowledges that without help, the pockets of red spruce that have endured past challenges face a daunting future.
“We’re going to be in trouble if the climate is changing and there’s not the capacity to adapt and evolve,” she said.
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But she also has optimism about what lies ahead, she said, in part because of the dedicated environmentalists who are determined not to let red spruces such as Ruby face climate change alone.
“We’ve come a long way,” she said, “but we still have a long ways to go.”
‘Things are not getting any easier’
To understand why those striving to restore red spruce forests feel so passionate about the work, Shallows said, it is important to grasp what would be lost if these ancient trees vanish.
“It’s critical to maintain red spruce forests in the highest elevations because they will be the climate refugia for many of the species that depend on them — and many of the species that are moving upslope as the climate gets warmer and drier,” she said.
Red spruces provide shelter and food to an array of birds and mammals, including the northern saw-whet owl, the black-capped chickadee and multiple types of salamanders. They also provide harbor to a plethora of plants, such as the wood sorrel and bluebead lily, and lichen with names such as Appalachian Dust Bunnies and Oosting’s Square Britches.
Without spruce-fir forests — where the two evergreens reside — those other species’ sanctuaries will shrink.
“Then those species will have nowhere to go, especially as it gets hotter and drier,” Shallows said. “We will lose a lot of that biodiversity.”
Her group and others are doing what they can to prevent that.
For decades, the Nature Conservancy and other groups have planted stands of red spruce across sites in West Virginia, western Maryland and southwestern Virginia — with a focus not only on helping to expand and connect often isolated islands of trees, but also on trying to increase the genetic diversity of the trees to make them more resilient.
Partnerships such as the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative and the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative do similar work up and down the East Coast, leveraging the resources and expertise of state and federal government agencies, nonprofit organizations and private conservations groups.
Since 2009, the Southern Highlands Reserve has propagated red spruce seedlings in its modest nursery and has grown more than 10,000 saplings. It has worked with partners to plant more than 6,000 of those on public lands in Western North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
The reserve boasts that it has “an unprecedented 90 percent success rate” of survival for its red spruce trees — a figure Holdbrooks attributes to using only the hardiest seedlings and letting them mature longer before planting, so the trees will withstand winds, falling leaves and other challenges of life in the forest.
As part of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree Program, the Forest Service has partnered with the reserve and promised $50,000 toward the construction of a state-of-the-art nursery that will grow red spruce seedlings. The National Forest Foundation aims to contribute at least $200,000 more for the structure, which will be built at the reserve and be a key piece of an effort to raise 50,000 red spruce trees from seed and plant them on public lands in the region.
Holdbrooks expects that when the updated greenhouse is eventually built on-site, the reserve’s capacity will be doubled and the job of caring for young trees will be easier.
The restoration efforts give the species a decent shot to endure in the age of climate change, Keller said.
“A lot of people feel a responsibility to do everything we can to make those remnant patches that are left as resilient as possible, and also to increase the numbers,” he added. “We want to give this species its best possible chance to stick around and weather the challenges that are ahead. Things are not getting any easier.”
Back at the Southern Highlands Reserve, Holdbrooks walks along an overlook, the mountains behind her unfurling in every direction.
She points at patches of high-elevation, dark-green forest in the distance that stand in sharp contrast to the red and orange and gold autumn leaves that cover most hillsides.
“That’s the spruce-fir forests,” she says.
Nearby, she checks on seedlings at the reserve’s two on-site greenhouses. “This is where the magic happens,” she half-jokes. Inside sit the thumb-size beginning of trees that advocates hope will grow where red spruces once thrived and, they hope, will thrive again.
“We’re just putting them back where our ancestors cut them down,” Holdbrooks says.
Meanwhile, Keller had a one-word reaction to the news that the federal government had chosen a red spruce as this year’s Capitol Christmas tree.
He hopes the move will bring a wave of attention to the conservation efforts. “And if it encourages people to read and learn about it and maybe take a hike and experience these forests themselves, I think that’s amazing.”
On a recent afternoon, months after a team of biologists, silviculturists, forestry technicians and arborists first scoured the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests looking for the right tree, Ruby was in Asheville about to begin the 14-stop journey — pausing for public events at courthouses and a high school, at a zoo and in town squares — on the way to Washington. Before she was loaded onto the trailer, workers were busy decorating her upper reaches with colorful lights.
“It will not look like this again until it’s unpacked at the Capitol,” said Adrianne Rubiaco, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service, as workers readied the tree for the two-week trip.
But even after Ruby’s time on the Mall in D.C. ends, after the ornaments have been removed and her once-majestic needles wither, her story won’t quite be over.
Her pine cones and the seeds inside them remain inside that paper grocery bag at the Southern Highlands Reserve, waiting to make their way into the world.
“Her seedlings will be part of the next generation of red spruce,” Rubiaco said. “ ‘Ruby’s legacy,’ we call it. Life after the West Lawn.”
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