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Restoring WV Spruce Means Cleaner Air for the Region

Highland Appalachian spruce can help reduce the amount of carbon in the air. (Forest Wander/Wikipedia)
Highland Appalachian spruce can help reduce the amount of carbon in the air. (Forest Wander/Wikipedia)
July 11, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Restoring highland Appalachian spruce forests could help reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. All healthy forests take CO2 out of the air and trap carbon in the trees and the ground. But, according to soil scientist Stephanie Connolly who works in the Monongahela National Forest, spruce trees do this very efficiently. She said it helps to think of the soil as a sponge, and for example, when a spruce tree drops its needles on the forest floor, more of the carbon stays and migrates below the surface.

"The soil acts as a sponge for water, but it also acts as a sponge for nutrients, and it stores carbon beneath the red spruce ecosystems," she said.

Folks running spruce restoration efforts in the Monongahela recruit volunteers to plant thousands of the trees every year. They plan to eventually connect those woods with areas of restored spruce in southern Virginia, and over time, in Tennessee and North Carolina as well.

Connolly said it's a different process, but similar to how the veins of coal that run through the same mountains were laid down. And she said carbon from the spruce is also visible to the eye.

"If you open up a soil profile, you can see it in a road cut, or any kind of construction," she added. "You can actually see it like you think of soot, or the carbon that we know to be coal."

She explains the carbon percolates into the ground more easily because spruce trees make the soil more acidic, compared to the mixed hardwoods common to the Appalachians.

"Species that we're familiar with in central App, like oaks and hickory and cherry and maple, versus a forest that's dominated by conifers, such as primarily the red spruce," she said.

Most of the Appalachian highland spruce were cut down a century ago. The Forest Service estimates restoring only the West Virginia portion would take the carbon equivalent of nearly 60 million barrels of oil out of the atmosphere and bury it in the forest floor, within 80 years.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV