WNC’s Forests Threatened by Exotic Diseases

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Dogwood Anthracnose. Chestnut Blight. Butternut Canker. Gypsy Moth. Hemlock Wooly Adelgid. Beech Bark Disease. Oak Decline. Sudden Oak Death. Balsam Wooly Adelgid. Locust Miner Beetle…

The list goes on and on. These threats, or potential threats in the case of Sudden Oak Death, are ravaging the forests of Western North Carolina and much of the Southern Appalachian Mountain forests throughout the surrounding region. These insects and funguses, mostly introduced by man from continents halfway around the world, have destroyed, are destroying or threaten to destroy various forest components. With so many angles of attack, it appears we may be losing the war. But is it a war YOU are willing to fight? Maybe, maybe not. If I can convince you to read on, perhaps there’s a chance.

Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire…
It’s a song we’re all familiar with. But you won’t find any chestnuts roasting on open fires around Christmas in the Smokies these days. Consider the Chestnut Blight. In the early 1900’s, the Chestnut Blight fungus swept through the forests, killing all of the mature Chestnuts. The fungus came to America from Asia on small imported nursery trees. The Chestnuts were by far the most common and by many reports the largest of all the trees in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The white blossoms covering the treetops in spring were a spectacular display, and (when not gathered by humans for roasting) the nuts themselves became a feast for the animals, such as squirrels and bears, that ate them. Chestnuts fell reliably year after year from 200 feet up, from branches and twigs supported by massive trunks. Gone is the beautiful, useful, rot-resistant, and plentiful hardwood which was once harvested from these fast-growing trees. Chestnuts, though not extinct today, are relegated to short sprouts which spring from the still living root systems of the former giant trees, before they’re killed back by the blight, or to miraculous, scattered larger individual trees which have somehow managed to survive (and do provide some hope for the future).

Today, the Flowering Dogwood is the state flower of North Carolina. Who can resist a second look at a hillside covered with the white Dogwoods, whose blooms emerge before the new leaves of spring and stand starkly visible below the still-barren branches of the overstory trees? In some places, they grow so thickly you could mistake the scene for a late April snow. But the Dogwoods are declining. Dogwood Anthracnose, another imported fungus, has spread across most of the trees’ native range, and slowly kills these diminutive beauties. Although they have not been completely wiped out, like the Chestnuts, the Dogwoods are becoming less and less common. Or consider the plight of the Hemlocks, whose lives are currently hanging in the balance as they’re being attacked by billions of tiny, wooly adelgids – insects that WE brought to them from Asia. The Adelgids are literally sucking the life – sap – out of their soft, lacy needles. Can another imported beetle, a predator of the Adeligids, which is currently being released throught the Hemlock’s range, eat enough of the adelgids to stop this? Can we keep the cool, moist Hemlock coves from becoming homes to tall dead trunks like the skeleton Fir forests atop the highest peaks, killed in years past by the Balsam Wooly Adelgid? Only time will tell. Find out more about the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid in a separate article here.

A New Threat

Tomorrow, and in the months and years ahead, our forest face a new, incredibly formidable threat: Sudden Oak Death. A major outbreak of this newly imported fungus could make all the other plights experienced so far look trivial. This incredibly virulent fungus can attack and kill an oak tree within just a few weeks. The Hemlocks, by comparison, get at least a season to survive after being infected, and can live several years sometimes with no treatment. Sudden oak death, like the Hemlock but unlike the Balsam Wooly Adelgid, kills young trees, so that a new crop of lush, vigorous new growth like we’re seeing with the Fraser Firs is impossible once the Oaks become infected. They’ll simply be gone. And when the Chestnuts went back in the ’20’s, it left our forests dominated by oaks. Now, it’s hard to find a forest that doesn’t have Oak as one of its main components. Ravaging oak forests in California right now, the disease has already been tracked – once again on imported nursery stock – into North Carolina during the early part of the new milennium. Luckily, the infected plants were quickly burned and destroyed in an attempt to curb a potentially catastrophic chain of death. What if the nursery plants had been bought, and planted, in someone’s back yard (bordering an oak forest that borders almost all the forest from Florida to Maine) and the fungus had escaped? For many, it’s not a matter of if, but when, the Oaks go the way of the Chestnuts, and maybe the Hemlocks, and definitely the Fraser Firs.

Is there anything that can be done to stop this torrent of death? In some cases, the answer seems to be yes – it’s possible. But we can’t rely on “the officials” to do it for us. Are we Americans willing to change our lifestyles to prevent these problems? Should we? The answers to those questions may be less encouraging.

The predator beetle certainly seems like a viable hope for the Hemlocks. The problem is, each beetle costs upwards of $2 just to grow, and private donations are badly needed to fund this project and release enough beetles to stabilize with the population of the Adelgid. Are you convinced yet? Click here to make a donation. Even two lousy dollars would help buy one beetle, which can eat thousands of Adelgids and produce dozens more beetles.

Experience What We Have to Lose…and Then Decide
If you’re still reading, then you’re not convinced (or you’ve already made or decided to make a donation – thanks!). You’ve decided to do nothing for now. I don’t blame you – seriously – with all of the activist groups and individuals who are, right now, dying to get a little piece of your paycheck, why should you care any more about this cause than any of the others? In fact, let me just say “thanks” for at least educating yourself on this issue. You’ve done more than most people to help our cause just by reading this, and other, articles and books about the subject. Unfortunately, I really don’t have any more educational information to offer you on the subject. Take no action, and there will be fewer dogwoods, but still some, left in the forest. And that’s not so bad.

Heck, with some of these diseases – probably including some we’ve not yet even discovered – our success hinges on doing nothing. If history has taught us anything about this subject, it’s that imported nursery plants have brought with them some very nasty hitchhikers. This means that the practice of buying nursery plants from far away states or countries should stop immediately. It can’t be governmentally regulated to stop, although they try. Instead, homeowners, landscapers, businesses and gardners need to use native plant species instead that can be cultivated and grown from locally available sources. They’re cheaper, more natural looking, better able to adapt to the local climate and local pathogens (insects, funguses) and require less care. So that’s something simple you can do – stop importing non-native plants, and everyone benefits. Is everyone really going do do this, though?

Don’t worry about that for now. You’re still reading, and I’ve already told you that I don’t have any new information to offer. I think the best thing I can recommend to you, at this point, is to go out and have some fun! (Hey, if you’re going to do something, it might as well be fun!). So put away this article, get outside, and hike, bike, fish, ski, hunt, jog, picnic, swim, or even just relax and read a book in the woods. Take some pictures. Smell the flowers, turn over a rock and look for bugs and salamanders. Whatever you wish. This is a hiking web site, after all. Just follow the link to “trailheads” at the top of the page and find a place close to you! But most importantly, while you’re out there, allow yourself to – really – develop a sense of what we have to lose. Along with loved ones, some people become deeply attached to the place they live. Some are nomads. If you’re not a nomad, then try really experiencing where you live – or where you visit, if that’s why you come to Western North Carolina or the Appalachian Mountains – and let the sense of attachment grow. Sense what is special about this place, because it is.

Fact is, most people just don’t care. And why should they? Dead trees aren’t going to affect their lives – not immediately, at least – not those who don’t spend time outdoors. We all have day-to-day and larger difficulties, social obligations, and other things that must be dealt with in our lives. And these are immediate and more important needs. For some people, dead trees may matter some, but issues such as diversity of species and potential loss of genetic variability mean little. When it comes to causes to which you could donate, diseases affecting humans directly are certainly more important. And granted, it’s a complex issue, and people have a lot to learn already. Maybe these changes are inevetable – after all, change is. So the Southern Appalachain Temperate Forest as we know it may be lost.

Oh well?

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