Red spruce around the region
In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, long-time U.S. Forest Service researcher
Bill Leak and his colleagues have also been keeping an eye on red spruce at the Bartlett
Experimental Forest. Rather than extracting tree cores and analyzing ring widths, they
reviewed historic forest inventory data dating back to the 1930s to see how red spruce has
fared over time. Data from 57 permanent sample plots at upper elevations ( 1,500-2,900
feet) originally measured in 1932 and remeasured in 1992 and again in 2003, were analyzed
to see what changes have occurred. These are stands that have essentially been unmanaged
during this period, providing a suitable reference condition with which to compare.
The findings show that red spruce is holding up remarkably well, in spite of acid rain,
climate change, and the other maladies facing them.
“The data show that overstory red spruce (five inches DBH and larger) have maintained
their dominance and even gained ground over other species during the past 70 years. They
seem to be doing just fine here,” Leak says matter-of-factly. Even more promising is that it
appears that there is an ample supply of red spruce in the understory to sustain the species
into the future.
These results suggest that perhaps the mortality and decline experienced in some parts
of New England has not been universally felt, or that maybe they were temporary and are
coming to an end.
Another confounding plot twist, according to Schaberg and Leak, is that red spruce
in Canada (where the natural range of red spruce is double the acreage it occupies in the
U.S.) never seems to have experienced the decline that occurred here beginning in the
1960s. “Up there, red spruce has been, and continues to be, an important commercial
species with high rates of harvest, reforestation, active management, and even genetic
improvement programs,” Schaberg said. It’s conceivable to think of our neighbors to the
north reading this article and wondering what all the fuss is about.
The importance of red spruce
Schaberg considers red spruce a keystone species, implying that ecologists place an above-average importance on its role in holding the ecosystem together. It provides crucial
habitat for the northern flying squirrel, a relic of the last ice age with a strong fidelity to
the cool, moist environs of high-elevation spruce-fir woodlands. Red spruce is prized as
a lumber tree: it is strong, lightweight, and straight-grained. It’s also easily worked, and
instrument makers consider it a premiere species for its acoustic qualities in violins and
other string instruments.
The red spruces that we have left today are but a fraction of those that were once here,
having survived the axes of early settlers and the acid rains of Hub Vogelmann’s time.
Historic milling records in Vermont indicate an abundance of red spruce logs passing
through as vast swaths of virgin forest were cut and converted to farms and pastures.
The survivors that have outlived harsh winters like 2003 – what Schaberg calls “selection
events” – are essentially the fittest of the fit.
Schaberg is excited by the recent discovery that red spruce is rebounding, both because
of what it means for that species and because of its potential to help us learn more about
the overall dynamics of forest health. “I’m always happy to talk to anyone I can to spread
the message and tell them the story of red spruce,” he says. “It’s great to have this renewed
interest in the species, because it means people are paying attention to the forest as a
whole, and the benefits that we all derive from it.”
Now, if only he could work some comeback magic into the sports world – because I
know there are plenty of Red Sox fans who are hoping for a similar revival to take place
at this year’s spring training.
Joe Herring is a professional forester. He writes in his spare time from his family’s remote cabin in the wooded hills of
“It’s great to have this
renewed interest in
the species, because
it means people are
paying attention to
the forest as a whole,
and the benefits that
we all derive from it.”