Red spruce (Picea rubens) is one of the most abundant tree species of mountain spruce-fir forests. The high-elevation areas of New York have experienced a decline in red spruce, in which trees exhibit a gradual and progressive deterioration of vigor and an eventual dieback. The causes of spruce decline are linked in part to acid rain deposition (Scott et al. 1984, Lazarus et al. 2004). Forests in mountainous regions are often exposed to greater amounts of acid than lower-elevation forests because they tend to be surrounded by clouds and fog, increasing exposure. When leaves are frequently bathed in this acid fog essential nutrients may be stripped away. This loss of nutrients in their foliage makes trees more susceptible to damage by other environmental factors, particularly cold winter weather.
There are about 50 to 100 occurrences statewide. There are several large occurrences protected on state land. This community is restricted to the high-elevation slopes of mountainous areas generally above 3,000 feet, and includes several very large, high quality examples. The current trend of this community is probably declining slightly due to the combined effects of atmospheric deposition, recreational overuse, and logging. This community has probably declined moderately from historical numbers likely correlated with logging and development of the surrounding landscape.
The number and acreage of mountain spruce-fir forests in New York have probably remained stable in recent decades as a result conservation efforts at high elevation areas in the state.
The number and acreage of mountain spruce-fir forests in New York have probably declined moderately from historical numbers likely correlated with past logging and other development.
Communities that occur at higher elevations in the state (e.g., >3,000 feet) may be more vulnerable to the adverse effects of atmospheric deposition and climate change, especially acid rain and temperature increase.The primary threat to mountain spruce-fir forests is acid rain deposition. The ability of forest soils to resist, or buffer, acidity depends on the thickness and composition of the soil, as well as the type of bedrock beneath the forest floor. Places in the mountainous Northeast, like New York's Adirondack and Catskill Mountains, have thin soils with low buffering capacity. Forests in high mountain regions are often exposed to greater amounts of acid than other forests because they tend to be surrounded by acidic clouds and fog that are more acidic than rainfall. When leaves are frequently bathed in this acid fog, essential nutrients in their leaves and needles are stripped away. This loss of nutrients in their foliage makes trees more susceptible to damage by other environmental factors, particularly cold winter weather (US EPA 2005). Mountain spruce-fir forests may be threatened by development, excessive logging, and recreational overuse (e.g., ATV use, hiking trails, campgounds, ski slopes).Spruce budworm (Choristoneura fumiferana) may be considered a threat to occurrences of mountain spruce-fir forest that experience extreme outbreaks, especially if it coincides with other stresses and reduces tree regeneration. The spruce budworm is a native insect that creates canopy gaps in spruce and fir forests of the eastern United States and Canada. Since 1909 there have been waves of budworm outbreaks throughout the eastern United States and Canada. The states most often affected are Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin (Kucera and Orr 1981). Balsam fir is the primary host tree for budworm in the eastern United States, although white, red, and black spruce are known to be suitable host trees. Spruce budworm may also feed on tamarack, pine, and hemlock. Spruce mixed with balsam fir is more likely to show signs of budworm infestation than spruce in pure stands (Kucera and Orr 1981).
Management should focus on activities that help maintain regeneration of the species associated with this community. Avoid cutting old-growth examples and encourage selective logging in areas that are under active forestry. Management activities should be consistent with recommendations presented in the High Peaks Wilderness Unit Management Plan (NYS DEC 1999).
Strive to minimize fragmentation of large forest blocks by focusing development on forest edges, minimizing the width of roads and road corridors extending into forests, and designing cluster developments that minimize the spatial extent of the development. Development projects with the least impact on large forests and all the plants and animals living within these forests are those developments built on brownfields or other previously developed land. These projects have the added benefit of matching sustainable development practices (for example, see: The President's Council on Sustainable Development 1999 final report, US Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification process at http://www.usgbc.org/).
Survey for new occurrences in the Adirondacks and Catskill mountains in order to advance documentation and classification of mountain spruce-fir forests. A statewide review of alpine and high elevation (>3,000 feet) communities is desirable. Continue searching for large sites in good condition (A- to AB-ranked).
Research the long term combined effects that atmospheric deposition, climate change, and extreme budworm outbreaks may have on mountain spruce-fir forest occurrences. Further research on "fir waves" may be desirable. Precise temporal and spatial mapping of fir waves may add to our understanding of this ecological process.
Mountain spruce-fir forests are essentially restricted to the Adirondack High Peaks of the Adirondacks and the Catskill peaks of the Appalachian Plateau. Small occurrences are likely in other areas of the Adirondacks and Appalachian Plateau. One to few very small occurrences are suspected in the Rensselaer County portion of the Taconic Mountains.
This community is a regional endemic restricted to upper elevations of mountains in the northeastern U.S. in New York and New England, possibly extending south to Virginia and West Virginia. The range is probably concentrated at high elevation areas of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine where it forms part of the high elevation matrix forest. It also occurs in the Catskill Mountains of New York and may occur as small patches in the Central Appalachians.
Mountain spruce-fir forests have a closed canopy dominated by red spruce (Picea rubens) and balsam fir (Abies balsamea), with associates, mountain paper birch (Betula cordifolia), yellow birch (B. alleghaniensis), and mountain ash (Sorbus americana). The shrub layer is dominated by canopy tree seedlings, and the ground layer has moderate herbaceous cover and a dense carpet of mosses. Soils are strongly podzolized and tend to be highly organic. Mountain spruce-fir forests occur on cool upper slopes at elevations between 900 and 1,200 m (3,000 to 4,000 feet). Along an the elevational gradient, they are often situated between spruce-northern hardwood forest and mountain fir forest. This community is restricted to the high-elevation slopes of the Adirondack High Peaks and the Catskill Peaks.
A forest dominated by red spruce and balsam fir, located on the cool upper slopes of the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains.
Known examples of this community have been found at elevations between 1,337 feet and 4,593 feet.
Several wildflower species of mountain spruce-fir forests can be observed in bloom throughout the spring and summer. During the spring, flowers of bluebead (Clintonia borealis), and Canada mayflower (Maianthemum canadense) appear on the forest floor, followed by Labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum), bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), goldthread (Coptis trifolia), and wood-sorrel (Oxalis montana). Later in the summer, flowers of mountain aster (Oclemena acuminata) and large-leaf goldenrod (Solidago macrophylla) appear.
This New York natural community encompasses all or part of the concept of the following International Vegetation Classification (IVC) natural community associations. These are often described at finer resolution than New York's natural communities. The IVC is developed and maintained by NatureServe.
This New York natural community falls into the following ecological system(s). Ecological systems are often described at a coarser resolution than New York's natural communities and tend to represent clusters of associations found in similar environments. The ecological systems project is developed and maintained by NatureServe.
Abies balsamea (balsam fir)
Acer pensylvanicum (striped maple)
Betula alleghaniensis (yellow birch)
Betula cordifolia (mountain paper birch)
Picea rubens (red spruce)
Sorbus americana (American mountain-ash)
Acer spicatum (mountain maple)
Fagus grandifolia (American beech)
Rubus allegheniensis (common blackberry)
Viburnum lantanoides (hobblebush)
Aralia nudicaulis (wild sarsaparilla)
Clintonia borealis (blue bead-lily)
Coptis trifolia (gold-thread)
Dendrolycopodium obscurum (flat-branched tree-clubmoss)
Dennstaedtia punctilobula (hay-scented fern)
Dryopteris campyloptera (mountain wood fern)
Dryopteris carthusiana (spinulose wood fern)
Maianthemum canadense (Canada mayflower)
Oclemena acuminata (whorled wood-aster)
Oxalis montana (northern wood sorrel)
This figure helps visualize the structure and "look" or "feel" of a typical Mountain Spruce-Fir Forest. Each bar represents the amount of "coverage" for all the species growing at that height. Because layers overlap (shrubs may grow under trees, for example), the shaded regions can add up to more than 100%.
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This guide was authored by: Timothy G. Howard
Information for this guide was last updated on: March 7, 2017
Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2023. Online Conservation Guide for Mountain spruce-fir forest. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/mountain-spruce-fir-forest/. Accessed February 5, 2023.