Year by year, with perseverance, Dave Saville has grown a towering tree-planting operation.
Sealed in stackable plastic boxes alongside the milk and broccoli in Dave Saville’s refrigerator in Morgantown, hundreds of thousands of tree seeds are weathering fake winter. Probably more like millions.
It’s unusual, yes, but not so unlikely, for him. His family did run a garden center and Christmas tree farm in New York state. And he earned degrees in resource economics and forestry after he came to West Virginia University in 1977.
Still, not everyone with that background would take it to the extreme place he’s taken it.
To be sure, Saville has done extreme things—like the legendarily gritty Blackwater 100 motocross races in Canaan Valley in the 1970s and ’80s. That’s what led him to notice the valley’s balsam fir. “They’re so grand and noble, the color and the branches,” he says. “I thought they were the most beautiful thing.”
He was already enamored with the Canaan fir when the deadly balsam woolly adelgid infestation hit in the ’80s. About that same time, the Christmas tree industry was taking an interest in Canaan fir, too, so Saville teamed up with Jim Rockis, a Christmas tree grower in Fairchance, Pennsylvania, to save seeds and do plantings. Rockis, as it happened, was also a major processor of tree seed. They collected Canaan fir cones and extracted the seeds, and Saville contracted for 1,200 seedlings with a willing nursery Rockis knew in Minnesota—most only take jobs in the tens of thousands.
When the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge (CVNWR) was established in the mid-’90s and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to plant Canaan fir there, Saville had the relationships and the operation. He was the natural supplier.
Sprucing things up
All of this was already in place when, around 2000, the agencies mandated to protect the threatened Cheat Mountain salamander and endangered northern flying squirrel decided to plant red spruce. A century ago, logging and burning reduced West Virginia’s vast red spruce forest to 30,000 acres fragmented on knobs and in remote valleys. Reconnecting those pockets would improve the species’ chances.
Red spruce is not commercially grown, and Saville, again, was the natural supplier. “So Jim Rockis and I started collecting red spruce cones.” That’s not just a trip to the woods on some free weekend. Red spruce fruit only every four to eight years. Collecting cones means knowing it’s a fruiting year, knowing the cones ripen in October, then hunting spots where squirrels have cut cones from 60, 70 feet up and left them.
If gathering cones requires specific knowledge, getting the seeds out is sorcery. “In nature, the cone is hanging down from the branch, tightly closed, and when it dries out it opens up,” Saville explains. “It triggers one or two seeds, and the seeds helicopter out. It rains and the cone closes; it dries and triggers a few more seeds. It hangs there all winter long, triggering a seed or two at a time. So we have to mimic that.” They do that in kilns and tumblers in Rockis’ facility, running thousands of cones through several times each to coax the seeds out.
Saville placed a first order for a few thousand seedlings with the Minnesota nursery. “You have to put a deposit down, and the trees take two years to grow, so you end up with quite a bit of capital invested. So I set on this trajectory to increase production by 5,000 every year—take the profits from this year to grow more next year.” He made the up-front investment and sold the seedlings to the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, which in turn sold them primarily to the CVNWR, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Nature Conservancy.
And he’s grown the operation every year since: 85,000 seedlings in 2020. He’s now welcomed by huge commercial growers in the Pacific northwest.
Tell me an understory
The planting organizations’ aim is not a red spruce plantation, but a red spruce ecosystem. So Saville runs an ancillary micronursery in his own yard, starting associated trees and shrubs like mountain ash and witch hazel. To do that, he harvests seeds from dozens of species—each one based on hard-won expertise.
“When I’m out in the woods, I pay attention to what’s flowering and where it is because, if I want to go out and collect Sorbus americana, I have to know where to look,” he says. “Then, once you know where a species is and when it’s flowering and fruiting, you have to be able to collect the fruit.” The drive into the mountains has to be timed just right—if the fruits are ripe today, the birds may have eaten them by tomorrow. “And then you have to get the seeds out of the fruits—berry, cone, pod, whatever it is—so you can store them. To me, that’s the fun part. Every one is different, and you have to take all of your accumulated knowledge to do a new species because it’s not textbook stuff. You can’t watch a YouTube video.”
Over two decades, Saville’s operation has made possible the planting of more than one million trees in West Virginia’s highlands. More than a million. They’re here and there but, planted in a square, 12 feet between them, they’d cover more than 5 square miles—an area larger than Elkins.
A tree-planting ecosystem
Saville has rooted his work as a citizen tree purveyor deeply, cultivating relationships in the state and federal agencies and conservation groups he partners with. Eventually, they formed the Central Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative, CASRI, and coordinated their efforts to set as many acres as possible on the trajectory to functioning red spruce ecosystem.
The reasons for planting red spruce are stacking up, Saville says. First it was protecting the salamander and squirrel, then it was also shading trout streams as a woolly adelgid killed hemlocks. Most recently, it’s the recognition that cool conifer forests like the red spruce ecosystem centered on the Monongahela National Forest are world-class carbon sinks that counter the advance of climate change mightily.
The agencies continually grow their planting programs to reflect all of that. So in 2021, instead of adding 5,000 seedlings to start 90,000, he’s tripling down: He’ll start 240,000. He’s sure they’ll be planted.
“Everybody’s looking at our effort—people bring tours to see what we’re doing here,” Saville says. “So many people are going above and beyond because they see how worthwhile this is. It’s something West Virginians should be proud of.”
photographed by Carla Witt Ford and Dave Saville