Hope for Hemlocks?

Could there be hope for those eastern hemlocks that haven’t already succumbed to this cottony sucker-of-death? Is the adelgid doomed?

ASHEVILLE ~ A new method of attacking the pest that destroys hemlock trees–a technique that involves the dairy product whey and a fungus–shows promise but may be a long way from making an impact.

About 74,000 acres of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 500,000 acres contain hemlocks, and “pretty much every place we have hemlocks, we have adelgids,” said park spokesman Bob Miller.

The park uses a crew of up to 16 people in peak season who spray about 2,000 acres of trees with a soapy solution and inject the insecticide, a program that will cost $812,000 this year. Predator beetles are employed in more remote areas.

We probably won’t live to see if this experiment makes any real difference. And there will be places–Goose Creek, for instance–where it will already be too late. I doubt we’ll have any living hemlocks left in five years.

There are several massive hemlocks along the steepest part of our road, dead and leaning, and every day I expect to see the last night’s winds or rain have sent a massive branchy trunk down across our single-lane road. Ann is most likely to discover such an event as she drives to work in the morning dark.

When a smaller one fell last winter, the highway department came to deal with it, sure enough. But rather than clear it away, they simply pushed the branches and tops and bark and chunks of rotten trunk down the bank toward the creek. It looked awful, and still does. I can imagine what the debris field will be from one of the giants. Its corpse will be scattered across a half acre. And then another. And another.

But maybe some can be saved. The Smokies have the greatest concentration, and that area still has relatively healthy stands I think. I was happy to see that work still goes on to save yet another forest species under threat from an invasive agent, though this will be scant comfort over the coming decade as ours rot in place. Or barricade our mountain roads.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. you know, i can never get past the irony of the connection between hemlocks and death, especially after reading your entry here. if nothing else, the hemlocks are sentinels for a host of environmental ills we can no longer ignore, or we do so at our own peril.

    all manner of ideas for essay or commentary –even a short story –arises from considering the fate of the hemlocks and those things for which socrates was condemned: corruption of youth, refusal to recognize the gods of the state. which are what, in this day and age? money and power? economic health? global warming?

    as socrates said, what must i do, i wonder? hmmm… maybe you’re coming full circle in what you said in your last entry was one of the best things about the “early days” of your blog… sowing the seed for thoughts that may cause others to delve into their writing sacks, and pull out plums. or rotten eggs… i guess it depends upon the end result.

    at any rate, thanks for giving me something to ponder today.

  2. The Smokies hemlocks are in really bad shape except in the areas that have been treated from the beginning of the infestation. The treatment has been limited to popular trails, campgrounds, and Cades Cove. It’s probably too late to save all but a remnant even with a new treatment. It’s unspoken but I believe the policy is to preserve small stands to show future generations what a hemlock forest used to look like. When they start falling the cleanup will require a massive effort in order to keep trails and roads open. One of the most popular trails to Grotto Falls has been closed for a long period due to large falling trees inducing a landslide. The only real solution for saving large areas is aerial spraying of some kind of treatment that would work with that kind of distribution. The adelgid eating beetles and insecticide solutions are too labor intensive and costly without some kind massive organization like the CCC of the 1930s.