How the National Park Service is Saving the Smoky Mountains from the Hemlock Wooly Adelgids

Hemlock forest in the Smoky Mountains
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This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about the hemlock wooly adelgid insect in the Smoky Mountains. The insect was first detected in the national park in 2002, but it wasn’t until recently that it started causing problems for the national park. Officials at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park say they haven’t experienced this kind of ecological challenge since the loss of the chestnut trees at the turn of the 20th century.

About the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid

White webs from the hemlock wooly adelgid insect

White webs from the hemlock wooly adelgid insect

The hemlock wooly adelgid is a beetle-like insect that is native to Asia. Scientists who have studied the Smoky Mountains specifically believe that the insects are from southern Japan.

These insects came to the United States in the early 1900s, transported over by humans. Still today, humans continue to spread the insects through firewood. Now, the insect is found in 16 states.

The Smoky Mountain trees have been infested with these insects since 2002. The hemlock wooly adelgid have no predators, so they quickly made their way throughout the entire national park.

The hemlock wooly adelgids are very small insects that leave small white webs of wool on hemlocks where they nest. In these nests, the insect will attach itself to the needles of the hemlock tree and feed off the nutrients of the tree. Over a period of time, the tree is unable to get the nutrients it needs to thrive, so it eventually causes the tree to die. In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they have noticed some trees die quickly while others die much more slowly, depending on the level of invasion in the tree.

For more specific information about the hemlock wooly adelgid, you can visit the National Park Service’s website HERE.

About the Hemlock Trees in the Smoky Mountains

Hemlock trees are extremely beneficial to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are a large part of the foundation of the forestry, but they also provide a lot of shade which regulates the air and water temperatures in the park. This also means that the hemlocks provide a great place for plants and animals to live.

The park contains over 80,000 acres of hemlock forests, and about 1 in 5 trees in the Smoky Mountains is a hemlock.

How to Stop the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid

While it seems like it would be an easy task to kill off an insect, it’s truly not that simple when you’re dealing with an entire national park. The National Park Service sprays a chemical/pesticide treatment where they can, but they can still only reach about 15% of the hemlock trees in the park – it’s just not possible to reach every tree. This leaves 85% of the hemlock trees to be invaded and slowly die, causing a huge loss of trees in the park.

Trees dying from the hemlock wooly adelgid

Trees dying in the Smoky Mountains from the hemlock wooly adelgid insects.

Plus, the treatment isn’t a way to kill the hemlock wooly adelgid. The treatment only helps protect the that gets the beetle, but it only lasts up to 7 years at the most. This is more of a “band aid” for the situation than an actual solution to the insects, but it’s working to keep some of the hemlocks safe for now.

Another option would be to cut all of the dying trees down within the park, but that process would cost nearly half a million dollars which isn’t in the current budget for the park.

Now, the National Park Service is attempting to fight off the hemlock wooly adelgid with predator beetles. These beetles are from Asia and the National Park Service is bringing these beetles in to act as a natural predator to the insects. This is the best option for the success of the hemlock trees because it will hopefully set up a predator-prey balance that will fight off the invading insects.

Parson Branch Road Closure in the National Park

Parson Branch Road in Cades Cove has been closed indefinitely. This is the first road closure due to the hemlock wooly adelgid insect, and, unfortunately, the National Park Service does not expect this to be a short-term closure. They’re expecting the road to remain closed through 2016 and possibly even 2017.

Parson Branch is one of the more popular “roads less traveled” in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Recently, the National Park Service recognized that the

Clingmans Dome area view of the death of hemlock trees

Hemlock trees affected by the insects in the Clingmans Dome area.

hemlock wooly adelgids have taken over a majority of the trees that are within falling distance of the road. There’s over 1,700 trees that are at risk of falling on the roadway. They are hoping to ask for a budget increase to repair the road in next year’s budget planning.

Parson Branch Road can still be used as a hiking trail in the area, but we recommend you remain cautious as you’re hiking in this location. Bicyclists are allowed to use the road during the closure as well as dogs who are on a 6-foot leash.

Due to the closure, you can’t drive to the Gregory Bald Trailhead at Sams Gap, but you can still hike the Gregory Ridge Trail to Gregory Bald.

Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Don’t let the hemlock wooly adelgid stop you from hiking, driving or exploring the Great Smoky Mountains National Park! We encourage everyone to get out and explore the mountains and enjoy the beauty of all of the trees, wildflowers and historical structures in the area.

Click here to learn more about the best things to do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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