Recent collaborative research by West Virginia University (WVU), the USDA-NRCS and USDA-Forest Service has linked spodic soil properties to the historical range of red spruce (Picea rubens) in the Central Appalachians. The data collected has allowed researchers to map the occurrence of these properties to help project the historical extent of red spruce before railroad era logging (1860s – 1950s) dramatically changed the composition of the forest through clear-cutting and ensuing wildfires.
Compiling ecological site descriptions and analyzing their results
Ecological site descriptions (ESD) were documented to help to incorporate soil, climate, plants, animals, and human interactions into the land management decision making process. These maps provided a detailed guide for restoration of red spruce forest communities, which will help re-establish important ecological services provided by this forest type.
The new soil and forestry data collected, along with a wide review of literature, has shown that the disturbance of these areas has likely resulted in large pools of soil organic carbon (SOC) being released into the atmosphere as CO2 . This is in large part due to the loss of thick organic forest floor horizons, which decreases the water holding capacity of soils and makes watersheds more prone to flooding and erosion, thereby putting water resources at risk. Red spruce influenced forests are also important for regional biological diversity, and provide necessary habitat to rare and endangered species like the Cheat Mountain Salamander (Plethodon nettingi).
From the conclusions of research thus far, it seems likely that red spruce restoration, directed by our expanding knowledge of these ecosystems, can re-establish significant portions of this habitat and the associated ecosystem services (SOC, water security, habitats, etc.). In the future, red spruce restoration effort needs to be prioritized by spodic soil property maps.
West Virginia Soil Survey Partnership Field Week
In an effort to continue previous work on mapping of ecological site descriptions (ESD), the West Virginia Soil Survey Partnership Field Week took place between May 12-16 in 2014, with help from the USDA-NRCS, West Virginia University, The Nature Conservancy, WVDNR Heritage Program and the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (CASRI). The maps generated from the data gathered during the event were used to determine where to implement future restoration and land management plans.
Additionally, the information gained during the week has allowed managers to better understand the ideal habitat of threatened and endangered species, such as the Cheat Mountain Salamander; as well as other sensitive species, including the West Virginia northern flying squirrel. Data will also be useful in understanding the adaptive potential of the landscape, with regard to climate change. Managing Appalachian area headwater systems in a healthy, sustainable manner is crucial to delivering high quality natural resources, especially water, to downstream users.
Overall, the field week updated 13,750 acres of soils for the soil survey within federal lands and developed new ecological site descriptions and management interpretation tools for restoration and carbon sequestration management in high elevation forested lands. As well, the field week developed comprehensive briefing papers for the red spruce ecosystem, highlighting facts about the system, the potential for carbon sequestration, and the future potential to restore this ecosystem based on a changing climate and suitable landscapes.
Stephanie J. Connolly is a Forest Soil Scientist for the Forest Supervisor’s Office at the Monongahela National Forest.