Hemlock Restoration Initiative helps protect hemlock trees in Transylvania County and beyond (2022)

A forest during winter. What image does that bring to mind? Bare branches, gray skies, crumpled leaves on the ground, perhaps snow all around?

Winter time is surely a different look for our forests in Western North Carolina, a far cry from the full, vibrant, and green aesthetic of the summer, or the fierce shades of red, yellow and orange that paint the landscape during autumn.

Much of the flora in our woods have begun their months-long nap, waiting for warmer temperatures in spring to reignite the growing process. However, there are a few species that maintain their presence year round. Looking around Transylvania County and surrounding areas this winter, you’re more likely to notice one such species in particular.

The hemlock tree, a shaggy, dark green conifer is a common sitght in WNC forests. Here, we have two different types of hemlock: the eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and the Carolina hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana).

Eastern hemlocks are taller and more widespread than their Carolina counterparts. They are found in much of the eastern United States and even range into Canada. The Carolina hemlock, on the other hand, is a smaller tree that is only found in WNC and in a few small pockets in our neighboring states. This endemic species is often found along ridge tops and in rocky, craggy environments.

(Video) Hemlock Restoration Initiative- Hemlock Restoration in Transylvania County

Whether eastern or Carolina, hemlocks in our forests provide many ecological benefits such as stream temperature and flow regulation, erosion control, animal habitat and more, in addition to their natural beauty.A healthy, mature hemlock is a tree that takes up a lot of space, casting branches as far down as ground level and featuring a dense assemblage of small, flat, green needles. Unfortunately, many of the hemlocks within our forests today are opposite this picture of health.

The hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA), an invasive aphid-like insect, has spread far and wide and has inflicted massive decline of our hemlock stands. This tiny insect feeds on a hemlock and simultaneously prevents the tree from uptaking nutrients, causing it to enter into a drought-like stress response, drop its needles, and eventually die.

This process may stretch out for many years, but some trees can succumb to HWA infestation in as little as four years. In the eastern US, there are no native predators that can control HWA populations and the tree itself doesn’t have enough innate resistance to withstand the bug. Thus, without human intervention, nearly all of the hemlocks in our region may eventually die out. This is where the Hemlock Restoration Initiative (HRI) steps in.

An Asheville-based environmental non-profit program, HRI is entering into its eighth year of restoring hemlock populations and mitigating damage from HWA in North Carolina. There are several different methods in use to protect and support hemlocks against HWA including biological control, chemical treatment, genetic research, and silvicultural methods.

HRI is a proponent of all these strategies that can improve hemlock health, but one of our current main objectives is to increase the number of trees being chemically treated on public and private lands, so that more hemlocks survive long enough for slower forms of control to catch up.

This involves sending teams out into the field to treat hemlocks with insecticides that protect the trees against HWA for as long as 5 to 7 years.

Further, HRI has a strong commitment to education, hosting workshops and treatment demonstrations that teach private landowners, arborists, and forest management professionals how to effectively protect their hemlocks from HWA.

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HRI has been busy in Transylvania County and surrounding areas for many years, serving as a leader and partner in hemlock treatment and related activities. HRI began its work in the county by assisting with hemlock treatment on state lands, starting in 2016 at DuPont State Recreational Forest.

Later that year, HRI partnered with Transylvania County Cooperative Extension, Conserving Carolina, and the Transylvania Natural Resource Council to develop, fund, and roll out a pilot hemlock treatment cost-share program in which private landowners received financial assistance to have their trees professionally treated. Using funds from the county and various grants, this program assisted the treatment of nearly 3,000 hemlocks from 2016 to 2020.

In addition to DuPont, HRI has helped establish hemlock conservation areas in Headwaters State Forest and Gorges State Park. Over 4,100 and 550 hemlocks have been treated in these two public lands, respectively. Simultaneously, we have been working to establish biological controls in several state lands across the county.

In 2019, HRI entered into a Shared Stewardship Agreement with Pisgah National Forest, granting us the opportunity to help maintain the health of hemlocks in numerous hemlock conservation areas in the National Forest, including well-known sites off of HWY 276, like the Sycamore Flats Recreation Area, the Sycamore Cove Trail, the Pink Beds Loop, and the Ranger Station/Visitors Center.

Pisgah National Forest began chemically treating hemlocks for HWA in these sites over a decade ago, and it is a real treat for us to help maintain such healthy trees.

More recently, in April of 2021, HRI conducted a cost/work-share project with the Connestee Falls community as part of a separate effort to partner with homeowners associations and other community groups to facilitate treatment of hemlocks on private lands with support from local landowners. Additionally, HRI has held five HWA management workshops and additional educational presentations for the public in Transylvania County at sites ranging from summer camps to the historic Allison-Deaver House to National Forest land.

(Video) PART 1: Take Action Against Hemlock Woolly Adelgid – Impacts, ID, & Citizen Science

We have certainly been busy in Transylvania County, and we plan to continue remaining active in hemlock management and education in the area.

In the next couple of months, HRI will be returning to two National Forest sites that have been previously treated: Looking Glass Rock on Jan. 23, and the Pink Beds Picnic Area on Jan. 26. For each of these areas, we are recruiting volunteers to assist in treatment, so you, yes you, are welcome to come and assist our team in preserving these beautiful and important trees.

It’s also a great way to learn how to protect any hemlocks on your own land. More information about these volunteer opportunities and other HRI educational programs can be found on our website at https://savehemlocksnc.org.Whether or not you are able to volunteer with HRI, you can appreciate hemlock conservation efforts this winter by simply taking a look around.

As you gaze about the local forests and landscapes in and around Transylvania County, you may notice some dark green hemlocks poking through the largely bare branches of surrounding deciduous trees. If they look full and healthy, chances are they have been treated, perhaps by HRI and our partners. Hemlocks may be more noticeable during the winter, but they are a vital species for our forests all year round. Here at HRI, we strive to continue helping these majestic trees thrive, now and for the foreseeable future.

The Hemlock Restoration Initiative is a grant-funded program of WNC Communities and was established in 2014 by NC Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler. HRI receives funding from the NCDA&CS, the USDA Forest Service, other grants, and private donations.

Aaron Whittemore is the Stewardship & Conservation Education Associate at HRI, serving an 11-month term as an AmeriCorps member with Project Conserve, a program that partners AmeriCorps members with environmental non-profits in Western North Carolina.

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