by Kim Thomas
Forester Merill Flanary takes hemlock seriously. Flanary is co-founder of Save Kentucky's Hemlocks, a grassroots partnership of citizens, non-profits and government agencies working together to save eastern hemlocks in an effort to combat the newly established non-native insect, Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, which is expected to kill ninety percent of Kentucky’s eastern hemlocks, also known as Tsuga, in the next few years. The Tsuga is a beautiful fir tree called "hemlock" due to the similarity in its smell to the leaves of the historical and infamously poisonous plant.
(artwork on hemlock wood, above, "She Reclines Among the Hemlocks")
(see aceweekly.com for full story covering the Tsuga Art Event, December 2008)
Flanary is eager to spread the word that these magnificent conifers are a much more integral part of Kentucky’s eco-system than one might think. In the spirit of community awareness and in celebration of eastern hemlocks, she and fellow forester Greg Abernathy organized the Tsuga Art & Music Event last December, sponsored by Save Kentucky’s Hemlocks.
The presentation was an effort to raise awareness of the threat this tiny insect poses to the Tsuga, and will raise funds to purchase chemical for treatment of eastern hemlocks throughout the state of Kentucky.
The occasion began with a group art show, with original paintings, reduction prints, wood block prints, stained glass, sculptures, from a diverse group of artists. Some of the artists are attempting to incorporate hemlock wood into their art pieces. Many Moons Design of Lexington donated hemlock siding from salvaged old barns
As a Forester who works for Kentucky Natural Lands Trust, Flanary is also caretaker of Blanton Forest State Nature Preserve, Kentucky’s largest tract of old growth forest -- over 3,000 acres. She advises, "Blanton has vast acreages of eastern hemlock forests, and most of these hemlocks are four feet in diameter and tower over the headwater streams that make up Blanton."
Asked how the invasive insect got here and its ramifications, Flanary explains, "Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA) is an insect species similar to an aphid from Japan. It was introduced to the western United States in the 1930s on nursery stock from Asia. It went undetected in western states because western hemlocks have natural resistance and there are native predatory beetles that kept populations at a minimum. In 1951, HWA was first detected in Richmond, Virginia. Since there are no known natural predators in this region, and hemlocks in the east have little resistance, HWA has been killing the eastern hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis) and Carolina hemlock (Tsuga carolinia) at alarming rates. States such as Virginia, Connecticut, New Jersey, and North Carolina have reported devastating mortality rates between 42 and 90 percent of hemlock species. HWA was first detected in Kentucky in April 2006 in Harlan County. Spread by birds, wind, wildlife, and humans, HWA has now spread to five neighboring counties and is expected to cause widespread mortality in the next two to seven years. Although their numbers will be greatly reduced, eastern hemlocks will not become extinct. There will be chemically treated trees in home landscapes and arboreta that will survive. Too, there will be some trees in the forests that will survive because of some resistance factor to HWA though their numbers will be quite small."
Flanary believes that all of the impacts from the loss of hemlocks in Kentucky’s forests cannot be envisioned at this time. She warns that, with their decline, "changes in the forest structure from the canopy to the forest floor will become apparent. Increased sunlight will raise soil and water temperatures; decreases in soil moisture and available water flow in summer months will take a toll on the plants and animals that have evolved with the dense hemlock cover. Vegetation composition will shift to species that are more drought-tolerant as conditions become drier. Bird diversity and abundance may decline as hardwood trees and invasive non-native plants colonize the areas once occupied by hemlocks. The large influx of woody debris from fallen trees will clog streams and change their water chemistry, further damaging their ability to support aquatic life. Stream banks may destabilize as tree roots decay, adding more silt to choke the streambeds. No other species can replace the hemlock tree and assume its ecological role."
Flanary explains, "Kentucky’s hemlocks are healthy, unlike vast stands of dead hemlocks in neighboring states. She advises that if we act now, Kentucky can preserve a significant portion of its hemlocks from mortality. "Not only are they a significant part of our ecosystem, eastern hemlocks are a favorite tree among so many because of their majestic beauty and cultural importance. The loss of the eastern hemlock will be felt for generations, much like the loss of the American Chestnut in the early 1900s."
Why we want to save hemlock trees
Flanary explains, "Eastern hemlock is the dominant tree species in southeastern Kentucky’s deep ravines and mountain stream sides. It is also commonly found along moist cliff line habitat throughout eastern Kentucky. Isolated populations occur west of Elizabethtown in Hardin County and in the Green River valley around Mammoth Cave National Park. Hemlocks are long-lived, slow growing, and the most shade tolerant evergreen tree species in our forests. They typically grow in dense stands along streams, protecting streams by moderating the flow and temperature, which enables a wide variety of aquatic organisms that need cool, shaded water to survive through the warmer, drier parts of the year. The hemlock’s extensive, fibrous root systems hold the soil and help maintain stable stream banks. The dense canopies of hemlock trees create ideal cover for a variety of wildlife. The loss of the eastern hemlock will significantly alter how light and energy enter the ecosystem, meaning a change in the nutrient cycle, the hydrological cycle, decomposition rates, carbon storage and the ecological interactions that will play out at multiple levels within the ecosystem for centuries."
For more information about the eastern hemlock and its impact on our ecosystem , contact:
Kentucky Natural Lands Trust
P.O. Box 506
Harlan, KY 40831
Kentucky Natural Lands Trust
P.O. Box 506
Harlan, KY 40831