By Emma Castleberry
Hemlock trees are under attack, but four local organizations have found a way to protect them. “Hemlocks are a keystone species to river ecosystems in our region,” says Gray Jernigan, Green Riverkeeper and southern regional director for MountainTrue. The dense, dark foliage of these evergreen trees provides important food and shelter for forest creatures, particularly in the winter when deciduous trees are bare. Hemlock branches also provide shade to the river water, stabilizing temperatures, and their roots help to prevent erosion of the river bank.
Unfortunately, this vitally important tree is threatened by an invasive pest from east Asia: the hemlock woolly adelgid. The woolly adelgid eats the sap and starch of the hemlock, which eventually disrupts the tree’s growth and kills it. First reported in Virginia in 1951, the pest has since traveled to 20 states and one Canadian province. “It’s important for us to work to save hemlocks from the invasive and deadly woolly adelgid to protect biodiversity and forest health,” says Jernigan. “If we don’t, our forests will be changed forever, and stands of dead and fallen hemlock trees pose a threat to valuable recreational resources that local businesses and our economy rely upon.”
While the woolly adelgid plagues these trees across the nation, a local solution has been created to save the hemlock trees along the Green River Gorge. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, the Hemlock Restoration Initiative, American Whitewater and MountainTrue have come together to create the Paddlers Hemlock Health Action Taskforce, or PHHAT. “Many of the hemlocks most critical to the river ecosystem are located in remote and steep parts of the Green River Gorge that are inaccessible by foot,” says Jernigan. “The only feasible way to reach these locations is by river, and strong whitewater paddling skills are crucial to getting down safely.”
When PHHAT was first formed, the organizations recruited paddlers by word of mouth from the tight-knit, local paddling community that uses the Green River. “Since then, we have maintained a core of experienced leaders and have expanded our efforts by involving local paddling clubs and others in the community,” says Jernigan. “Given the skill required to navigate the rapids safely, we take care to select participants that are trusted as very advanced whitewater paddlers.”
The only reliable way to save a hemlock from the woolly adelgid is through the use of a chemical pesticide. One such pesticide is CoreTect, a slow-release tablet that can be buried in the soil beneath the hemlock and provide protection for up to five years. “Paddlers receive training in protocols for properly administering chemical pesticide treatments to infected trees while protecting water quality and themselves,” says Jernigan. “They are also trained in protocols to safely transport chemicals by boat to prevent any spill in case of an accidental swim, such as storing chemicals and equipment in multiple drybags while moving down river.”
Alex Harvey, who has been paddling since 1981, is one of the founding members of PHHAT. “I saw there was a need to treat hemlocks along the rivers we paddle and that paddlers were the only ones able to get to many of these hemlocks, due to the difficult terrain and lack of trails,” he says. On a recent trip, Harvey and several PHHAT members worked on the Green River for six hours, treating 128 trees. “Thousands of hemlocks line the Green, creating a corridor of incredible beauty,” says Harvey. “It’s important to keep that in place so other paddlers can continue to enjoy it.”
It costs $10 to protect one tree from the hemlock woolly adelgid for five years. For additional information on PHHAT, or to donate, please visit PaddlersForHemlocks.com.