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Red Spruce Forests


Red spruce forests covered the higher slopes and mountaintops of the Alleghenies when Europeans ventured into the wilderness in the mid-1700s. Later naturalists, including A. B. Brooks, Charles Millspaugh, and A. D. Hopkins, estimated that the original red spruce covered 469,000 acres, mostly in present Pocahontas, Randolph and Tucker counties in West Virginia. Unwise practices of converting spruce forests to grazing land by the slash and burn practice of girdling trees and then burning the forest, destroyed large areas of the original spruce forest. Wildfires escaping from campfires of Civil War troops and ‘‘rings of fire’’ set by deer hunters added to the toll. The remaining red spruce was cut by timber barons, except for a 50-acre tract near Gaudineer Knob.

The red spruce, West Virginia’s only native spruce, was a magnificent tree, reaching 70 to 100 feet in height and two to three feet in diameter. Many of the pure spruce forests produced 30,000 to 50,000 board feet per acre, while the better Canaan Valley stands averaged 80,000 to 100,000. By comparison, many good hardwood stands of today average only 15,000 to 20,000 board feet per acre.

Most of the spruce was sawed into lumber or converted to pulp for papermaking. High-quality boards were used as airplane frames and sounding boards for pianos. By 1920, most of the spruce forests had been intentionally or accidentally destroyed. Only 50,000 of the original 469,000 acres regenerated with red spruce. The rest became pasture or hardwoods that were often dominated by scrubby trees, shrubs, or waste areas.

Spruce forests are the stronghold for many warblers, snowshoe hare, Cheat Mountain salamander, northern flying squirrel, and northern fox squirrel. Dolly Sods and Spruce Knob are examples of spruce forest destruction, while Blackwater Falls State Park and Gaudineer Knob-Shavers Fork are examples of good spruce forests.

Written by William N. Grafton