Smokies foresters fighting bug deadly to thousands of trees

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GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS (WATE) – Thousands of acres of hemlock trees in the Smokies are in danger because of an insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid.

“We’re looking at some of the sadder picture of forest insects and disease,” said GSMNP Forester Jesse Webster.

Popular lookouts are littered with dead trees and visitors are noticing.

“It’s sad because I love nature,” said John Gibson visiting from Chicago.

To the average eye, most hemlocks in the Smokies look fine but a closer look reveals the microscopic insect not native to the area.

“They’re so small. How could an insect that is so tiny destroy these old growth giants? But they do,” Webster said. “In 2006-2007 really combined with the drought that we had we started getting a lot of calls, ‘Hey what’s happening with the trees, especially on 441?’”

The adelgid attach themselves to each tiny hemlock needle and block the nutrients the tree needs to survive. So teams of foresters head out training volunteers and treating the trees with tablets buried in the soil. Others are treated with injections.

“Once they dissolve, that’s going to be translocated right into the tree,” Webster said. “We know without any treatments currently, the majority of these trees would be dead.”

These chemicals do not come free, and with thousands of acres to cover the park service needs help. Nonprofits like Friends of the Smokies and the Great Smoky Mountains Association have stepped in.

“In total we’ve given the park about $1.3 million just to fight hemlock woolly adelgid,” said Brent McDaniel with Friends of the Smokies. “It’s a lot of money the park needs, a lot of support, and so we’re happy our donors can provide that.”

They accept donations, and the Great Smoky Mountains Association sells T-shirts in visitors centers. All of that money goes to hemlock funds.More online: What to look for and how you can help

That money has helped treat more than a quarter of a million trees, but with more than 90,000 acres covered by hemlocks the park service has to prioritize which get treated first staying near roads, trails and campgrounds. Even with that, the park has created 110 conservation areas they focus on.

“These trees are important for many reasons, not only their ecological value, but also we’re concerned about visitor protection,” Webster said.

Knowing the chemical treatments can only do so much, they are looking ahead and have found a natural predator to take the bug out. They have released four types of beetles hoping they can help long-term.

“We want to see the adelgid numbers tolerable for our hemlocks,” Webster said.

Visitors are hoping for the best.

“The trees to get better and the landscape to stay the same,”  Gibson said.

The park service knows there is a long road ahead.

“I know for future generations we’ve already taken that first step in maintaining these trees in the Smoky Mountains,” Webster said.

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