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End of the Hemlocks, a Lament (Op-Ed)

Photo taken by Ralf Stieber. There are no usage restrictions for this photo.

Randy Edwards is a senior media relations manager for The Nature Conservancy and has written about nature for nearly 20 years. This Op-Ed is adapted from one that appeared on the Nature Conservancy blog Conservancy Talk. Edwards contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.  

The ash trees had to go. My neighbors and I, we all knew that.  

But when they went, we were still shocked and sad. Nearly 40 years after the completion of the subdivision, the relatively mature trees in our modest neighborhood are prized. Our fondness for trees doesn't mean we knew one from the other, though, and so most of us didn't realize that the primary thoroughfares of our neighborhood were shaded almost entirely by ash trees.

City crews came while most of us were at work and cut down dozens of trees in one particularly industrious day. The long line of stumps made me catch my breath a little when I drove back into the subdivision after work. Our neighborhood had the look of a freshly shorn sheep, with all its cuts and bumps showing, manure clinging to its underbelly. Every patch of flaking stucco, every sagging gutter, every DIY disaster — all were exposed to the revealing sun.  

Suddenly my neighbors, who generally don't live in the same bubble of conservation concern in which I spend my days, were talking about a metallic green insect called the emerald ash borer (which has killed more than 10 million trees in North America) and wanted to know more about this thing called "invasive species." 

Any issue is more urgent when it hits your backyard — or your tree lawn.  

Most people have only a passing acquaintance with the nature of the place where they live and so don't notice the dark side of invasive species — the minority of non-native plants and animals that become a significant threat to native flora and fauna. And so if we notice it at all, we see that purple loosestrife is kind of pretty. Zebra mussels remain underwater and go unnoticed entirely. A vast expanse of common reed grass may be choking out a local wetland, but the feathery heads of the plants catch the wind with such grace it's hard not to be captivated.  

Even Asian carp, currently the most talked-about invasive species in the Midwest, were largely ignored until they began to heave their bodies out of the water and lash Illinois river anglers across their startled faces. [Asian Carp Spread to Upper Mississippi ]

In my home state of Ohio, people who love natural areas are about to get such a cold, wet slap in the face in the form of the hemlock woolly adelgid — a tiny, aphid-like insect native to east Asia that is sucking the life out of hemlock trees from Georgia to Maine.  

Brought to the United States about 40 years ago on imported nursery stock, the insect has spread throughout eastern forests. And now it appears to be moving west, over the Appalachians and into places like Ohio, where it was found in 2012. 

Sometimes nicknamed the "redwood of the east," eastern hemlocks and closely related trees are slow-growing evergreens that live for hundreds of years and can grow to 150 feet tall.  

 Although most of us may not be able to name them, we recognize their deep-green branches, as they are commonly found in parks, nature preserves and other protected, natural areas.  

Ecologically, hemlocks provide dense, cooling shade and organic, acidic soils that create a set of plant and animal species different from the typical hardwood forests of the southern and central Appalachians.  

Hemlock forests make for good trout streams and are homes to happy salamanders.  

More prosaically, there are (or were) a lot of old hemlock trees in nature preserves because the loggers didn't want them. They're not valuable for timber and they grow along steep slopes and in deep hollows and other places where it's just tough to log and unsuitable to build.  

During the early days of conservation, those areas were relatively pristine and were snatched up by organizations like The Nature Conservancy (which was, early on, sometimes derisively called the "gully and hemlock society"). 

Hemlocks set a mood, or at least they did in Robert Frost's snowy New England in "Dust of Snow":  

"The way a crow Shook down on me The dust of snow From a hemlock tree Has given my heart A change of mood And saved some part Of a day I had rued." 

I've rafted West Virginia's Gauley River and agree with the guides who say the Gauley resembles a western river, not only because of its wild whitewater but also its coniferous forest canopy — up to 50 percent of the canyon's steep slopes are covered in hemlock.  

Those trees will likely be gone before too long — victims of the adelgid — and the guides say rafters will notice the change, even if they don't know why the canyon looks so different.  

In time, the hemlocks likely will be replaced by beeches and maples or other hardwoods. In the short term, the opening in the forest floor may prove to be an easy conquest for Japanese honeysuckle and autumn olive — non-native, invasive species that choke out forest floors and prevent native trees from getting a start. 

On Groundhog Day, I led a small group of hikers through the Clear Fork Gorge in Mohican State Park in Central Ohio. It was cold, the trail was icy and the sky overcast. But the hiking was beautiful.  

Our group was thrilled by the sight of a bald eagle flying over the river, passing unnoticed by wading fishermen intent on catching trout. We stopped to rest at the base of an 80-foot frozen waterfall.  

But there was no doubt that the mood was set by the fresh snow lodged attractively in the boughs of the towering hemlock trees that line the gorge.  

As the hikers seemed so delighted by the trees, I didn't tell them that before my grandchildren are grown, the adelgid is likely to kill those hemlocks, as they have up to 90 percent of the hemlocks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in The Nature Conservancy's Greenland Gap Preserve in West Virginia ,and in the Fanny Bennett Hemlock Grove, a patch of virgin wood in West Virginia's Monongahela Forest — and as they will, eventually, in Ohio's Clifton Gorge and the Hocking Hills. All are places where the shade of the hemlock helps set the mood of a place that remains wild. 

But maybe I should have said something, because there is some hope for these trees. Experiments with a tiny Asian beetle that is a natural predator to the adelgid show some promise in keeping the insects in check.  

And scientists are working on an adelgid-resistant strain of hemlock. In the meantime, expensive chemical treatments may keep enough hemlocks alive long enough to find a solution. [6 Invasive Pests Threatened by Cold Weather ]

Next time I get the chance, I'll be sure to tell people about the threats to our forests from insect pests, because there are steps each of us can take to help prevent their spread:  

  • Buy and burn your firewood locally. The adelgid, the ash borer and other insects frequently hitch rides on firewood, especially when it is moved from infected areas into campgrounds in parks across the country. (Read more about this on the Don't Move Firewood web site).
  • Don't feed the birds if you're in an area where hemlocks are not infected. Some scientists believe the rapid spread of the adelgid throughout the east is partly to blame on migratory birds.
  • Write or call your representatives in the U.S. Congress and tell them that more must be done to stop the import and spread of invasive-insect pests. Tell them the U.S. Department of Agriculture needs more encouragement to approve new rules and regulations that will prevent invasive insects from getting into the country, and from moving around the country once they are here.
  • If you're hiking where there are hemlocks, keep an eye out for small, fluffy white balls at the base of the needles. These are hemlock woolly adelgids. If you see them, contact your state forestry officials.

In the meantime, large stands of dead hemlock stand in mute testament to the rule of unintended consequences.

As they become more common in places near and dear to me, maybe they will move me to take more action to save them. Maybe my fellow hikers will be moved to action. And just maybe, you'll be moved, too.

This Op-Ed is adapted from "End of the Hemlocks, a Lament," which appeared on the Nature Conservancy blog Conservancy Talk. Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google +. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.