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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Forests of The Great Smoky Mountains

I spent some time in The Great Smoky Mountains this summer with my family. It was a rare reminder of my childhood adventures, traveling around the United States and exploring the breathtaking National Parks. The only difference is that now I am the father and I have a family of my own. It makes me stop to wonder what sorts of experiences my son will have someday with his children. Will the vast wilderness still exist for them to explore? It is likely that most of it will, but what I saw this summer reminded me that our forests are far more fragile than we often assume.

Nestled into our cabin just outside of the all-day/all-night carnival of Gatlinburg, TN the mountains seemed to be teeming with life, but 4,000 feet above a different scene played out. Standing tall upon the highest peaks of the Smoky Mountains resides the noble Fraser Fir. These trees thrive in conditions that few other trees could survive, but like the American Chestnut before it, nature has turned against it (will a little help from humanity). The slopes, once covered in a blanket of green, are now punctuated by thousands upon thousands of dead and dying trees.
The view from the Clingmans Dome clearly shows the ruin upon the mountain side. The tiny Balsam Woolly Adelgid (Adelges piceae Ratzeburg), a parasite accidentally brought over from Europe in the early 1900s has infected the fir trees, slowly destroying the population. Efforts have been underway for decades to save the trees but no solution has proven effective for solving the problem on such a massive scale. Sprays have shown that they can protect the trees, but only when applied liberally. Unfortunately it would be impossible to spray the entire forest. Other measures against the Adelgid involve bringing in beetles to feed upon them, but no significant impact has yet been observed.

As the Fraser Fir trees whither on the mountain tops a new threat has been creeping into the valleys. Across America the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (Adelges tsugae) a close cousin to the Balsam Woolly Adelgid has been spreading. It has taken hold along the eastern coast of the United States from Georgia to Maine and has spread inland as far as Tennessee and Kentucky. While the pest is native to eastern Asia and the western edge of the United States, the trees in those regions have adapted natural defenses to protect themselves. The Canadian/Eastern Hemlock and the Carolina Hemlock do not have the ability to fend off the pest and are killed within a few years.

Some groups, like the Friends of the Smokies and SaveOurHemlocks.Org are working hard to do what they can to protect the Hemlocks from the Adelgid threat. You can help by keeping your eyes open for possible infestations and contacting your state and county if you suspect anything. It is also important not to collect trees from the wild and bring them into your community. You could be spreading the pests without knowing it, even if the plant looks healthy at the time. For more information on how the treat trees on your property or ways to help visit the links below.