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The cottony white egg sacs at the base of the needles are a dead giveaway that woolly adelgids have infested your hemlock.
 

By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter

 

It’s as tiny as a period on the printed page, it’s as ugly as mildewed mucus and it can’t even fly.

But what the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA) can do is wipe out vast forests of evergreens, and that’s what it’s expected to do in Dade County – unless Dade fights back.

“In Virginia, the Shenandoah National Forest has lost almost all of its hemlocks to this insect,” said Donna Shearer, chairperson of Save Georgia’s Hemlocks. “The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina has lost almost all of its hemlocks, and those were old-growth hemlocks.”

Ms. Shearer, speaking with the Sentinel in a telephone interview last week, will be leading two workshops on the woolly adelgid threat on Saturday beginning at 10 a.m. in the Interpretive Center of Cloudland Canyon State Park. 

She described how whole mountainsides throughout Appalachia had been denuded by the HWA, a pest from Asia that has no natural enemies here. The aphid-like sapsucker found its way to the eastern United States in 1951 and has been marauding its way through America ever since. “The insect is 100 percent fatal to hemlocks that get infected unless they are treated,” said Ms. Shearer. 

Now the tiny killer has made its way to our neck of the woods.

“The infestation first entered Georgia in 2003 in the northeastern corner, over in Rabun County,” said Ms. Shearer. “There is massive die-off of hemlocks over there, a little bit less as you come west. In the northeastern counties of Georgia there is terrible damage to trees. Many, many are dead, and the majority of the remainder are infested and on their way to dying, except those that have been treated.”

Nineteen Georgia counties have so far been infested by the woolly adelgids, including, now, Dade – and including Dade’s famed beauty spot, tourist destination and economic driver, Cloudland Canyon State Park. 

“We have acknowledged we have the disease in our park,” said Tom Pounds, president of Friends of Cloudland Canyon State Park. “They haven’t really gone out to count yet. They’re going to do that, but Bobby [park manager Bobby Wilson] says if we lose 50 percent of our hemlocks, we’re lucky.”  

Enter Ms. Shearer’s group, Save Georgia’s Hemlocks, an all-volunteer nonprofit formed in 2009 to preserve the state’s hemlock trees. Ms. Shearer and her fellow volunteers have schooled themselves in the latest adelgid warfare techniques and are sharing their knowledge at free clinics such as the ones planned for Saturday.

“This is free training, in-depth training that we’ve developed over five or so years,” said Ms. Shearer. “We do it for free but we kind of want it to be a bargain of the heart, if you will, that people who take it will make their knowledge available to others.”

Part 1, the Hemlock Help Clinic, which begins at 10 a.m., is an overview of the threat to hemlocks, how to recognize woolly adelgid damage, the options for saving the trees and the free help available through Save Georgia’s Hemlocks.

Part 2, from 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., the “Facilitator Workshop,” is more hard-core, geared more toward the individual who wants complete how-to instructions on going forth and saving hemlocks, and perhaps training others to do so. “This class will provide in-depth information on the trees, the bugs, assessing infestations, cultural controls, chemical treatments, biological controls, cost and safety, assisting other property owners, working on public lands, and more,” wrote Ms Shearer in an announcement of the classes.

Both sessions are open to the general public as well as to any interested land managers or foresters, but attendance at the 10 a.m. session is a prerequisite for attending the 11:30 segment. There is no charge for either, but the $5 statewide Georgia Park Service parking fee applies to those who do not purchase yearly passes.

Though the workshops are at the park, Ms. Shearer specified her group has no formal arrangement either with Cloudland Canyon or its nonprofit Friends group. “We do not have anything in place with Cloudland Canyon specifically,” she said. “We do have an agreement in place with the Department of Natural Resources’ State Parks Division so that our trained volunteers can go onto park land and actually be the boots on the ground to treat trees.”

Tom Pounds of the park’s Friends group said at this stage, saving hemlocks is more the business of the individual landowner than the DNR. “Of all the hemlocks here in this part of the Appalachian, the majority are on private property,” he said. “So they want the private property people to start treating their hemlocks.”

But Pounds and the other FOP members are naturally interested in the matter as they expect shortly to become part of the war. “The park’s not got the money to treat all the trees at Cloudland Canyon, so they’re coming to the Friends and saying, can you do some fundraising to help us buy the chemicals?” said Pounds. 

He said several FOP members had taken workshops on the adelgid problem, and plans for fundraising were already in the works. “But we’re still putting the cart ahead of the horse,” he said. “We’re not sure how we’re going to treat them yet.”

Pounds said possible treatments include a natural one, killing the sapsuckers with adelgid-eating beetles, as well as a chemical one, a pesticide that some critics worry will contaminate watersheds.

Ms. Shearer, interviewed separately, said that experiments with the predatory beetle look hopeful but so far impractical. “Now, that solution is an ultimate natural solution that we very much are rooting for, but in the meantime there are not enough beetles out there in the world,” she said.

For now, she said, the treatment her group uses is a preparation sold under several names but whose active ingredient is imidacloprid.  Imidacloprid is a systemic insecticide, applied to the shallow roots of the hemlock at its base, from which it is sucked up and distributed throughout the tree’s tissue. When an adelgid hooks in to feed, it ingests the poison and dies.

“The chemical is a mild nicotine derivative,” said Ms. Shearer. “It’s a synthetic derivative that has been used for a long time in dog and cat flea collars, so it’s not a big, scary, dangerous thing.”

She said adelgids kill trees of all sizes and ages – hemlocks can grow hundreds of feet tall and live up to 1,000 years – and her group’s strategy is to save as many of each age as possible. “We will prioritize the big ones because they are the cone makers, which will reproduce future generations, and they have the most extensive root systems and canopies as well, and therefore they do the most benefit to an area,” she said. “But we do try to save trees of all sizes, because you have to plan for succession in the forest.”        

The chemical treatment can prevent infestation in healthy trees as well as save ones that are already moderately infested, said Ms. Shearer. But even so, it’s not a permanent fix: repeated treatment is required every five years. “The war against the adelgid is not the kind of a war where you’re going to be able to completely wipe out the enemy,” said Ms. Shearer. “The bugs are here and they’re here to stay.”

Ideally, she said, the chemical solution is a stopgap until the predator beetles can be deployed to create a satisfactory hunter-prey balance.

For more information on the woolly adelgid threat or on the workshops, readers may visit www.savegeorgiashemlocks.org or call Ms. Shearer at (706) 429-8010. 

 


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