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Climate Change Threatens a Giant of West Virginia’s Landscape, and It’s Rippling Through Ecosystems and Lives

HUTTONSVILLE, W.Va. — Rodney Bartgis crouched down, slowly turning over rocks in search of the elusive Cheat Mountain salamander on Central West Virginia’s Gaudineer Knob.

Already federally listed under the Endangered Species Act, it’s not easy to find them, the former state biologist says.

It could get much harder. 

As the climate continues to heat up, a cascade of ecosystem effects could pose more risk to the salamander and other species tucked inside these Allegheny Mountains—starting with further declines in red spruce, whose reddish-brown trunks stand tall on the landscape and in the lives of West Virginians.

The state’s spruce population, now around 50,000 acres after decades of logging and pollution, provides a cool, moist refuge for the beloved Cheat Mountain salamander and West Virginia’s northern flying squirrel, affectionately nicknamed Ginny. Both were granted Endangered Species Act protection in the 1980s after serious declines of red spruce, and the salamander remains threatened. 

The trees also keep streams cold for native brook trout, West Virginia’s state fish and a tourist draw. 

Scientists warn that red spruce are especially vulnerable to drought conditions projected to become more common as the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps ever more heat. Higher temperatures will dry out the soil, lead to more intense drought and damage the state’s forested land cover.  

Nearly a decade ago, a report from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources marked the trees as “highly vulnerable” and predicted they may disappear entirely as the temperature rises.

“People always love to say nature’s resilient, and it is,” said Bartgis, who was a scientist for the natural resources departments in West Virginia and Maryland, and then for the nonprofit Nature Conservancy. “Nature is like people. It’s resilient to a point, and we can’t keep pushing that limit. Or we can see consequences that we haven’t seen before.”

At one point, red spruce covered the Monongahela National Forest with their thick branches and canopies of yellow-green pine needles. Starting in the 1800s, the timber industry began chopping down the massive trees, using steam trains that threw off hot cinders and ignited fires. Later in the 20th century, acid rain, caused by the combustion of coal—some of it dug out of mountains nearby—wreaked havoc on the recovering trees.

Now, in these same forests, climatic changes are projected to fuel more extreme weather that may further hinder the spruce tree’s ability to ever bounce back. 

“[Red spruces’] abundance and/or range in West Virginia will likely decrease by the middle of the century. Species that depend on red spruce forest, northern hardwood forest, or pin oak swamp will face severe stresses as regeneration in these forest types shifts to species with greater tolerance for warmer, drier conditions,” said the state’s 2011 report, the last to analyze climate change’s impact on the state. 

“There’s potential for those rare occasions of drying that are already bad, for it to be really bad, and to affect small populations where there’s just a pocket of Cheat salamanders holding on,” Bartgis said. “If we lose more spruce forest—if it becomes unsuitable for spruce—that’s obviously bad for the salamander.” 

West Virginia is already seeing weather extremes. Three cities had their hottest Septembers on record this year. In October, Gov. Jim Justice, whose family is a major coal mine owner and who denies mainstream climate science, declared a drought state of emergency in all 55 counties that lasted several weeks. The drought, his office said, was putting crops and livestock in danger and increasing the risk of wildfire. 

A study published this summer by Nicolas Zegre, director of the Mountain Hydrology Laboratory at West Virginia University, found that the Appalachian region could see a 10 degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperature, more evaporation along mountain ridges and more drought by the end of the century because of increased carbon dioxide emissions.

But West Virginia’s political leaders have opposed action on climate change. And while West Virginians have historically had an attachment to the plants and animals native to the state, many are reluctant to talk about the issue. 

Ask someone what they love about West Virginia, though, Bartgis prompted, and they won’t talk about a politician or industry leader. 

They’ll tell you what a beautiful state it is. 

“What sets our forests and rivers apart from every place else are the unique combination of things, whether it’s how beautiful our sugar maple forests are, or the things that are found here that aren’t found anywhere else, like the Cheat Mountain salamander,” he said.

“We take away this one, and that one. We lose this, and we lose that, then what’s the cumulative effect of all of that? It starts to unravel, and what’s unique and beautiful starts to fall apart.”

Red Spruce in the Crosshairs of a Changing Climate

With peaks as high as 4,000 feet above sea level, the Mid-Allegheny Highlands follow the Appalachian Mountain chain, encompassing the Monongahela National Forest, Canaan Valley and Blackwater Canyon. 

They’re green and lush in the summer, with foliage the color of brick and gold in the fall. The lowest valley is still the highest east of the Mississippi, and the climate, which is more like Maine and New Hampshire than the rest of the state, provides the perfect home for red spruce trees, which can get as tall as 60 to 80 feet and grow 2 feet wide. 

“It’s a little bit of Canada gone astray in West Virginia,” said Dawn Washington, a wildlife biologist at the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. 

The refuge is part of the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, a network of groups trying to restore red spruce across the Appalachians and ameliorate the effects of climate change. Washington grew up in Pennsylvania. Many of her family members were employed by the coal industry. 

“I hunted, I went fishing, I was always in the woods. I just love the forest, I guess that’s what it is, I just love everything about it, every aspect of it, and I think there’s enough people that do love it, and they’re going to help,” she said. 

Washington works with landowners and other groups to replant the spruce. Sometimes they get up to 100 volunteers a day. “We’re a long ways away,” she said. “But we’re on the right track.” 

Red spruce blanketed the region after the Ice Age, and scientists estimate that, at one point, West Virginia had as much as 1.5 million acres of the reddish trees. But logging, fires and acid rain devastated the state’s red spruce population. 

The invention of the band saw mill and Shay geared locomotive made it easy to saw through miles of virgin forest to create paper and material for shipbuilding. Logging and logging-related fires changed the soil underneath the red spruce, making it easier for hardwood trees to grow instead. 

After that, acid rain, caused by the release of sulfur dioxide pollution from coal burning, cut the remaining red spruce population in half between 1940 and 1989, scientists from West Virginia University wrote in 2018. Though the Clean Air Act significantly cut down on the nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide in the air, scientists say the changes to the climate may hinder the trees’ ability to recover. 

“Evidence of climate change and its impact on northeast forests has grown stronger with each passing year,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote in 2012.

The suitable habitat for red spruce across the Northeastern U.S. could shrink by 66 percent by 2100 if emissions keep rising unchecked, the study found. Climate change could also usher in invasive plants and species that can threaten trees.

“We have definitely seen things getting warmer and have also seen changes from the amount of snow we get here in Canaan Valley,” Washington said. The Cheat Mountain salamanders “are right along the mountain chain there,” she said, referring to the peaks of the Allegheny Mountains outside her office. “They’re all at high elevations. If they didn’t have that cool moist climate with the red spruce at the tops of the mountains, they wouldn’t survive.”

Eastern Brook Trout, a Draw for Anglers, Threatened

The red spruce also plays a crucial role in protecting native brook trout that thrive in West Virginia’s cold mountain streams. The fish are a tourism draw here, bringing in anglers from all over the country. When they lose habitat or tree coverage, it makes them easier prey.

Already, trout have lost about one-third of their habitat in Appalachia’s cold-water streams because of changing air and water temperatures. 

Under high-emissions scenarios, habitat suitable for the brook trout could be gone this century from the Allegheny Mountains, which includes Virginia and West Virginia, according to state scientists in Virginia

“This pattern was somewhat expected, and concurs with numerous other investigations that predict the widespread loss of habitat in the southern portions of ‘northern’ species’ ranges; particularly those extending south through the Appalachian Mountains,” their report says. 

Trout Unlimited, a conservation group, has been working in the Greenbrier, Potomac and Cherry rivers to maintain those habitats and restore streams. Their work includes post-flood mitigation efforts, such as putting habitat logs and structures back in streams to slow down stream flow. The group is also planting red spruce trees. 

West Virginians have been trout advocates “from way back,” said Gary Berti, eastern home rivers initiative director at Trout Unlimited. “That’s how West Virginians relate to their land, it’s through their trees and the trout and the animals that are on their property. And they want that back. No one ever says, ‘no, I don’t want trout on my property.'” 

“We know it’s coming,” Berti said of the impacts from warming. “And it’s probably going to get worse. Unless we change our ways.” 

Making Climate Change Personal

Blackwater Falls State Park sits in the eastern part of West Virginia, where the Eastern Panhandle meets the body of the state. Visitors come for the massive cascade of water surrounded by greenery and mesmerizing views of West Virginia’s peaks and valleys. 

Friends of Blackwater, a local conservation organization, has published several iterations of a report called “On the Chopping Block” that aggregates climate science research. The report examines the climate impact on species in the Mid-Allegheny Highlands. 

“Blackwater Falls is a beloved place, people get married there, they scatter ashes there, this whole special part of the state, everything that happens up here is tied to the climate,” Tom Rodd, who sits on the group’s board, said. 

The group’s most recent report, from August 2016, shows that under high-emissions scenarios, habitat for red spruce will disappear in half a century and climate-related threats to forest health from invasive species like the hemlock wooly adelgid will grow. 

“The strategy [of our reports] is very simple: People will worry about climate change when it’s going to affect them personally,” Rodd said. “They love Ginny, the West Virginia flying squirrel who is on the chopping block. … I mean, we have a possibility of saving some of her habitat, but it’s not a good situation.”

‘Conservation Comes After Breakfast’

These complexities can be difficult to convey to the public, said Brandi Gaertner, assistant professor of environmental science at Alderson Broaddus University, located in Phillippi, about two hours northeast of Charleston

“I think it’s largely political,” she said. “I think there are so many people that are coal miners here that even the thought of championing [action on] climate change is a threat to their foundation. Their cultural identity.” 

In 2018, the Yale Program on Climate Change created a map that illustrated Americans’ beliefs about climate change based on surveys. Across the country, 70 percent of people said they believed that global warming was happening, and 57 percent said they believed it was caused mostly by human activities. In West Virginia, those percentages fell to 59 percent believing global warming is happening and 44 percent believing it’s mostly caused by human activities. 

Yale also gauged public opinion on whether fossil fuel companies should pay for warming damages. Fifty-seven percent of Americans agreed; 39 percent of West Virginians agreed. 

“It can kind of be summed up into, ‘It doesn’t affect me,'” said Zegre, at West Virginia University.

In the state Capitol, West Virginia’s leaders continue to forcefully support fossil fuels. As natural gas overtakes coal in the nation’s power mix, state political leaders continue to pass resolutions and legislation that would make it easier for companies to tap into the sprawling Marcellus Shale formation, which stretches across the region, and build pipelines to bring the gas to market. They’ve done little to establish incentives for clean energy projects.   

“It would be crazy to think West Virginia can be a leader in this transition,” Rodd said. 

The challenge for policy and scientific experts and educators, Zegre and Gaertner said, is to meet people where they are. Prolonged drought means West Virginia’s food system could be vulnerable. Flooding near the nation’s biggest naval base in Virginia affects national security. There’s an expression for this, Zegre said: Conservation comes after breakfast. We can’t talk about something so esoteric until our basic needs are met.

“And I think that’s very applicable to Appalachia, where, not only do you have a cultural identity rooted in coal, and not only do you have the demise of an industry based on forces beyond a single president or based on a single administration, these all threaten that ability to provide,” Zegre said. “And that’s a very real threat.” 

In the classroom, however, more and more students come to school with the realization that climate change is something real, with effects that can be ameliorated, Zegre and Gaertner said. 

“Each year, there’s a greater awareness and acceptance that climate change is happening,” Zegre said. “And with that is a lot of hope.”

This story was produced as part of InsideClimate News’ National Environment Reporting Network.

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