About spruce-fir forests

A wooden fence running beside conifer trees and rhododendron shrubs, all in the fog.
A spruce-fir forest in the fog at Roan Mountain

What are they?Found on the highest and coldest parts of the Southern Blue Ridge, the Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forests are widely considered a relic from the last ice age. The ice age’s cold temperatures pushed typically northern-latitude plants and animals, like spruce and fir trees, southward. As temperatures warmed, those species moved back north…and uphill, where they found refuge in the cold weather of the highest peaks east of the Mississippi.  These species became isolated on these mountaintop islands, over time forming an ecosystem unique to the Southern Appalachians.

Spruce-fir forests :

  • Occur on the tops of the highest peaks in the Southern Appalachians.
  • Have red spruce and Fraser fir as the predominate tree species.
  • Are very moist environments, and are often immersed in cloud cover.

Where are they?

  • Great Smoky Mountains
  • Plott Balsam Mountains
  • Great Balsam Mountains
  • Black Mountains
  • Unaka Mountains
  • Roan Mountain
  • Grandfather Mountain
  • Grayson Highlands

What makes them important

From the 1880s to the 1930s these forests were logged extensively with some areas experiencing catastrophic wildfires in the logging slash. These fires not only killed trees, but burned the organic component of the soil, which red spruce seeds need for germination. This era of unchecked logging is considered the primary reason that restoration efforts are needed since the spruce forests have not recovered from this era in more than 100 years.

  • They are home to federally-listed species such as spruce-fir moss spider, and Carolina northern flying squirrel (learn more about an on-the-ground effort that will benefit rare squirrels) as well as a long list of species of conservation concern including the northern saw-whet owl, brown creeper, black-capped chickadee, and several salamanders. Ensuring the continued existence of these species means ensuring they have ample habitat.
  • Economic impacts – These forests occur at some of the highest profile, highest-visitation natural areas in the southern Appalachians. Stewarding them helps ensure these areas continue to draw people, which in turn helps support local economies.
  • Climate change – Spruce-fir forests occur at the highest, coldest peaks in southern Appalachia. Being dependent on this cold climate puts them in a precarious position in the face of climate change. Restoring these forests helps makes them more resilient in the fact of climate change.
Sunlight shining through a conifer forest.
Spruce-fir forest at Mount Mitchell State Park. Credit G. Peeples/USFWS
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