Battling Hemlock Wooly Adelgid with Dept. Superintendent Jordan

September 19, 2015

With more than 500,000 acres and 10 million annual visitors to manage, work at Park Headquarters can certainly keep you busy, something Deputy Superintendent Clay Jordan knows all about. When he finds the time, Clay goes out in the field to work hands on with crews all over the park. He shared his recent experience working with the park’s vegetation crew to treat hemlock trees.

by Deputy Superintendent Clay Jordan

Clay Jordan
Dept. Superintendent Clay Jordan

This past Thursday I carved out some time to escape from the Superintendent’s Office with Resource Management & Science Chief Jeff Troutman.

We sought out a vegetation crew working in the Cherokee Orchard area. Jeff and I formed a small team with our guides Jesse Webster and Jason Watson and worked a swath of woods defined by the Twin Creeks Trail and LeConte Creek, while across the stream our sister party, comprised of Seasonal Bio Tech Evan Cross, AmeriCorps service member Dalton Hyde, and Volunteer “Doc” Hadala, worked a similar swath.

The objective was to identify eastern hemlock trees 6-inches and greater and treat them to protect against the Hemlock Wholly Adelgid (HWA), an incredibly destructive, small sap-sucking bug from Asia that has been spreading through the park since 2002.

Hemlock Woolly Adelgid Damage
HWA infestation on a hemlock bough

As we moved about from tree to tree, we discussed the high points of the program.

While it is impossible, of course, to prevent the HWA from taking its toll on forest health by killing thousands of hemlocks in the park, our Vegetation crews prioritize their efforts by focusing on road corridors, frontcountry areas, and 106 conservation areas, totaling some 14,000 acres across the park’s backcountry.

A variety of treatments are used in their multi-pronged approach to combating the adelgid, both chemical and biological.

Crews apply one of several insecticides through a variety of methods, depending upon a number of criteria specific to each site.

In more recent years a cadre of four predatory beetles have been introduced to join the battle. It is hoped that once a solid footing is established a long-term equilibrium of hemlocks, adelgid, and beetles will enable the continued survival of the hemlock with minimal mechanical treatments.

And that is a good thing, as our Vegetation crews are stretched dealing with new emerging forest threats, such as the Walnut Thousand Cankers Disease and the Emerald Ash Borer, both firmly establishing themselves in the park.

Emerald Ash Borer

Preserving Smokies forests as we know it is truly dependent on our ability to combat these highly destructive non-native pests. And doing so is not cheap. While funding for the program is pooled from several sources, critical support is received each year from both the Friends of the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountains Association, our partners who appreciate the importance of this effort.

A large commitment, absolutely, but you can’t argue with success. The section of forest we worked our way through was dominated by healthy hemlocks towering over us.

Faint markings at the base of the trees revealed why they were still standing—they had been treated by a Veg Crew about 6 years ago.

Jason W. treating a hemlock tree
Jason W. treating a hemlock tree

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Successful treatments with soap sprays, insecticides, and predator beetles, combined with several recent below-freezing winters have made a noticeable dent in the HWA population with some areas showing a 98% mortality rate among the insects.

The fight is far from over, but signs of progress are certainly reassuring. In the meantime, Friends of the Smokies will proudly contribute more than $32,000 this year to protect native tree species against several invasive pests, including $20,000 for protection of hemlocks. To support our efforts, you can make a donation here.

Read more here about the park’s extensive efforts to combat the hemlock wooly adelgid with support from Friends of the Smokies and GSMA.