In this issue:

Notes From Our Director

With summer comes change. Temperatures warm, deciduous trees are fully leafed out in their vibrant greens, and the air becomes thick and heavy. Meanwhile, the hemlocks use the summer as a chance to slow down as their nutrient and water uptake lessens. All these changes that come with summer combine to present conditions that are less suitable for hemlock treatment, and so like the hemlocks, we at HRI also slow down (at least in terms of field work). 

HRI fall/winter crew with a beautiful hemlock in the Fires Creek area of Nantahala National Forest

The 2021-2022 field season for HRI has ended, but there is much to unpack from what was a jam-packed seven months from October to May. There was much work to be done, and this season was longer and featured more HRI staff than ever before. However, none of the work or the accomplishments we detail below are the product of the HRI staff alone. Everything we do is done in partnership with others, both on the ground and behind the scenes, up and down the line. Since HRI’s inception, we have maintained strong working relationships with the NCDA&CS, NC Forest Service, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, and NC Parks and Recreation, without which we wouldn’t be able to operate. Over the past two years, our partnership with the USDA Forest Service has been growing, thanks to shared stewardship agreements with Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests. In addition to our state and federal government partners, there are several local governments and NGOs with whom we have collaborated on specific projects, not to mention the many individuals and communities that have supported our work through hours of service, generous financial contributions, and positive words–sharing our story, mission, and message with others.

It is because of the strength and dedication of this extensive network that HRI‘s “Sustaining Hemlocks—Phase 1” project was selected as one of the Landscape Scale Restoration (LSR) grants to represent Region 8 of the USDA Forest Service in a report to the US Congress this past spring. Region 8 comprises the 13 southern states reaching from as far west as Texas, as far south as Florida, and as far north as Kentucky and Virginia. Only two grants were selected to represent Region 8 in this report, and ours was one of them!

The focus of the Phase 1 LSR grant was to develop a strategic plan, establish a substantial network of Hemlock Conservation Areas (HCAs) that set the conservation of hemlocks within North Carolina in motion, and perform initial chemical treatments in those HCAs. Through the collaborative work of HRI and the NCFS Forest Health Branch, we have been able to partner with a number of other state agencies, local governments, conservation organizations, and private citizens to make Phase 1 a resounding success. This initial phase has laid a strong foundation for the continuation and expansion of hemlock management on state and private forests in North Carolina.

We’re beyond proud that this project was selected to be a part of this report to Congress. We’re also thrilled to report that, while we’re currently in the middle of conducting “Sustaining Hemlocks—Phase 2a” using funding we received through a second LSR grant in 2020 (see story below), we have just received notification that the NCFS was successful in securing a third LSR grant in order to continue Phase 2 for three more years.

The impressive outcomes produced over the last five years of collaborative hemlock forest management are also why hemlock restoration was included in the state budget this year as a recurring line item. The NC General Assembly now recognizes HRI as a permanent program by providing annual funding through the NC state budget! This most exciting development will allow us to continue to expand on the work that’s been done thus far and plan for future restoration objectives with confidence and a long-term, strategic vision.

That’s not all! We were grateful to recently receive a grant from a nonprofit organization in the Highlands-Cashiers plateau called Mountain Findings. Mountain Findings uses proceeds from the sale of donated items to fund projects that support the greater Highlands-Cashiers community. Mountain Findings has awarded grants totaling over five million dollars to projects in a number of focus areas including the arts, public safety, education, healthcare, and environmental conservation. The organization learned of HRI through our HWA management workshop series. The recognition by Mountain Findings and their financial support will increase awareness of HWA and options for control among Macon County landowners. We are pleased to add Mountain Findings to our list of partners. It serves as a great example of how, as our network of partners grows and diversifies, so does our impact.

2021-2022 Treatment Season Roundup: “Sustaining Hemlocks–Phase 2” Begins

HRI spring crew enjoying some well-deserved refreshments after our last treatment day of the 2021-22 season

HRI’s treatment efforts in the 2021-2022 season ranged across many areas of WNC, but there were several places where we spent serious stints of time. The start and end of our season began in the High Country protecting hemlocks on lands primarily managed by NC Parks and Recreation and the NC Forest Service. We found ourselves in prime leaf season in October when we treated hundreds of trees along the popular Profile Trail in Grandfather Mountain State Park. Our very last treatment day in May was spent re-treating hemlocks in Gill State Forest around the grounds of the NCFS Mountain Training Facility–a fitting end as we spent many nights lodging on-site in order to stay close to our work areas. 

In the fall and winter, we spent time treating within Pisgah National Forest, including beloved destinations such as Curtis Creek, Linville Falls, Wiseman’s View, Looking Glass Rock, and Pink Beds. Many of the remaining Pisgah HCAs we treated this year, including a couple of the aforementioned, were Carolina hemlock populations. These are particularly important to maintain through chemical protection as they are relatively few in number, not being found outside of a small portion of the Southern Appalachians. They are often located in hard-to-reach places such as on top of steep-sloped, rocky ridges and massive granitic plutons, making the trees a challenge to access. Luckily, we enlisted the help of several sturdy and adventurous volunteers to get the job done. Thank you to everyone who helped us on those days!

HRI Forestry Techs Andrew Cobb (left) and Katie Caruso (right) re-treating a hemlock in a Phase 2 treatment site at Sandy Mush Game Land

In addition to the shared stewardship agreement with the USDA Forest Service that allows us to work in these fabulous places in Pisgah National Forest, last year HRI started a similar agreement with Nantahala National Forest. This spread our reach to the southwest corner of the state, where we were delighted to treat hemlocks in special places like Joyce Kilmer, Lake Santeetlah, and Fires Creek. We took advantage of our time “out west” to offer a treatment demonstration in Robbinsville and spend multiple days with Mainspring Conservation Trust volunteers and staff coming to the rescue of several hemlocks in need of a prayer in the recently established Piney Knob Trail System in Murphy. We are grateful to the Town of Murphy and to Mainspring for their support in making that project come to life. Other community-based treatment projects occurred as part of HWA management workshops and our cost/workshare program for private communities.

The majority of our spring treatment efforts had a state and local-government focus. We treated hundreds of hemlocks on Buffalo Cove Game Land in Caldwell County, at the new Universal Park disc golf course in McDowell County, and the brand new Chestnut Mountain Nature Park in Haywood County, to name a few. The Chestnut Mountain project was a volunteer day co-hosted with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, the organization responsible for protecting the land so that it could become a town park in Canton. We also treated thousands of hemlocks at Green River Game Land across a number of different HCAs. Headwaters State Forest (see HCA Spotlight below) was also a spot of emphasis, as we spent a similar number of days conserving the hemlocks that are so important to the French Broad’s water quality. 

HRI Outreach Manager Thom Green (left) and DuPont State Forest Management Forester Jordan Luff (right) re-treating a hemlock near DuPont’s Reasonover Creek Trail

Headwaters wasn’t the only state forest in Transylvania County to receive some hemlock love this past spring. In April, the NCFS dedicated multiple days, resources, and people to hemlock treatments in DuPont State Recreational Forest, treating close to 1,000 trees in just three days! They also ensured that the 270 hemlocks at the Governor’s Western Residence remained healthy, a responsibility bestowed upon them since well before HRI existed. In fact, those trees were the training ground for HRI’s director, Margot Wallston, to learn the ropes from NCFS Forest Health staff back in 2015. 

Our efforts surely spread far and wide, and we were able to make significant strides in hemlock conservation during the past season. Many of our treatment efforts this season also held special significance because they were “Phase 2” treatments. When HRI first began treating hemlocks back in 2016 with the help of the NCFS Forest Health Branch, the primary goal was to identify stands of importance with significant amounts of hemlocks and conserve as many of these trees as possible. These Phase 1 treatments allowed us to establish a substantial network of HCAs from which to conduct landscape-level hemlock conservation on North Carolina’s state and private forests. Now, many of the stands that we treated in 2016 and later are in need of reassessment and follow-up management. When we return to the stands which we have previously treated, we change our protocols and enter into what we call Phase 2 of treatment. 

HRI AmeriCorps member Aaron Whittemore monitoring for Laricobius nigrinus beetles at Buffalo Cove Game Land

Phase 2 differs from Phase 1 in that we don’t prioritize re-treating every viable hemlock we encounter. Many of our Phase 2 sites have established populations of predator beetles that feed on the HWA–a result of release and redistribution efforts by HRI and other agencies and organizations before and in addition to us. These beetles require HWA for their survival, so by leaving some of the newly-restored hemlocks untreated and allowing them to slowly become reinfested, we save time and resources while also ensuring there is an adequate food source for the beetles.

Because there is greater emphasis on biological control in Phase 2, we also have increased our Laricobius beetle monitoring efforts, allowing us to get a sense of where the beetles are present and how robust their populations are. While we haven’t surveyed all ~165 HCAs yet, Laricobius beetle establishment has been confirmed at 50 HCAs so far. By monitoring for the beetles and simultaneously measuring hemlock health in a Phase 2 site, we are able to better understand their role in hemlock conservation. 

HRI Forestry Tech Aaron Whiting measures an impact plot tree

In many Phase 2 sites, we systematically take note of hemlock health by establishing or checking on “impact plots.” These plots are groupings of ten hemlocks which are deemed to be representative of the entire stand of hemlocks in which they reside. The ten trees are marked, and several aspects of their health and characteristics are measured. We can then take these measurements repeatedly to assess how the representative trees are faring over time. This helps us make more informed management decisions in the future. 

During the past treatment season, HRI and our partners, such as NCFS, treated thousands of hemlocks across a variety of lands (in total 14,822 trees with a cumulative DBH of 162,835 inches) and perhaps spent more time in the field than ever before. Conducting both new Phase 1 treatments and returning to previously treated stands to begin Phase 2 treatments, we have further expanded hemlock conservation within the state for the 7th year in a row. The hemlocks still face an uphill battle, so we don’t plan on stopping our efforts any time soon. Thanks to the increased support from the state and other funders, our next season will be, without a doubt, even more productive than this one. Regardless, the 2021-2022 treatment season was one for the books.

Conservation Connections Corner: Jean and Doug Ponder of the Lake Tahoma Community

Jean Ponder gives a little love to one of Lake Tahoma’s grand old hemlocks

On the edge of the Pisgah National Forest north of Marion sits Lake Tahoma and the community that shares its name. Jean Ponder and her husband, Doug, are year-round residents at the lake and are dedicated to protecting the community’s hemlocks. The Lake Tahoma community is on 3,500 acres surrounding the lake and has about 50 lots, each less than one acre. The rest of the community property is mostly forested land that is commonly held. The lake is surrounded by hills and fed by seven different streams, many of which are lined with hemlock trees that have suffered greatly from HWA.

Jean became concerned about the hemlocks on her property and sought out more information about protecting them by attending an HWA management workshop put on by HRI at McDowell Tech Community College in 2021. At the end of the workshop she was inspired to expand her plans beyond protecting her hemlocks and get hemlocks in the broader Lake Tahoma community protected too.

Doug Ponder scouting for hemlocks in the forest around Lake Tahoma

Jean and Doug worked with members of the community and HRI staff to plan and carry out a treatment work day this winter that has jump-started an ongoing effort to protect hemlocks on communal forests and private lots in the community. Jean and Doug are out helping neighbors chemically protect their trees and have assembled the equipment and marshaled volunteers to help with the massive task of scouting and treating areas around the community with significant hemlock populations. During the spring, the Ponders treated over 200 hemlocks in the community including trees on common property and around several neighbors’ houses. Jean leads the charge with Doug by her side, keeping the records and climbing the hills. 

Jean and Doug are looking forward to the fall when they can begin treatment again, with the help of community volunteers, to protect hundreds more hemlocks that will support the health of the watersheds that feed the lake. Jean is also motivated to help the hemlocks so that her grandchildren will be able to enjoy the beauty of these trees for years to come.

If you know someone who has gone above and beyond to protect the hemlocks in their community, please contact us at or call us at 828-252-8743, and we might feature them in a future newsletter.

HCA Highlight: Headwaters State Forest–A Haven for Hemlocks

Many WNC residents and visitors are familiar with the popular DuPont State Forest, and some have probably explored Gorges State Park, but fewer are likely to have traversed through the woodlands of North Carolina’s newest state forest — Headwaters State Forest. Tucked between DuPont and Gorges in Transylvania County, Headwaters State Forest, which officially opened to the public in 2018, covers 6,730 acres of mountain forest filled with cool streams; cascading waterfalls; rare ecosystems, plants, and animals; and thousands of hemlock trees. HRI has been working in partnership with the NC Forest Service to protect the hemlocks of Headwaters since 2017. 

A cascade on one of the many headwater streams in Headwaters State Forest

The State Forest takes its name from the more than 50 miles of headwater streams that crisscross through its woodlands and eventually flow into the French Broad River. The French Broad is an iconic WNC river, flowing through or near many of the region’s cities and towns, including Brevard, Hendersonville, Asheville, Weaverville, Marshall, and Hot Springs, before eventually forming the Tennessee River as it merges with the Holston River in Knoxville, Tennessee. In recent years, the French Broad has come under scrutiny as a highly polluted river, with one 19-mile section in Buncombe County labeled as officially impaired because of high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. The importance of keeping this river’s waters clean and healthy has never been greater, and it all starts with the headwater streams found in Headwaters State Forest.  

HRI’s treatment of hemlocks in Headwaters is especially important because headwater stream areas are vital to the overall health of the larger river systems that they feed. These upper watersheds act as filters by carrying out ecosystem processes that uptake and transform harmful pollutants into more benign forms. They also mitigate flooding and recharge groundwater by absorbing precipitation. Hemlocks play a large role in these processes through their properties that keep streams cool, reduce erosion and runoff, and mediate nutrient cycles.

Mature hemlocks in Headwaters SF
approximately five years after their initial treatment in 2017

Headwater streams support an assemblage of plant and animal life that is often unique from larger bodies of water downstream. They also benefit downstream communities of organisms by providing food — the high amount of organic material in these streams, such as leaves, are broken down by bacteria and fungi and then used by insects. This process has cascading effects which ensure a highly functioning food chain exists miles further along the river system. 

In addition to its importance to the French Broad watershed, Headwaters State Forest also helps create unbroken forest corridors between over 100,000 acres of conserved lands in North and South Carolina. These forest corridors are extremely important for the ability of plants and animals to cross through and move to new habitats to find needed food sources and shelter or to migrate into new areas as climate change alters their preferred habitats. Headwaters also offers another great opportunity for WNC residents and visitors to recreate in the mountains with areas for hiking, hunting, fishing, and wildlife viewing.  

Headwaters SF is full of small, regenerating hemlocks like this one

The cool, moist, stream-filled areas within Headwaters State Forest make for great eastern hemlock habitat, and there are many thousands strewn across its more than 6,000 acres. Unfortunately, like all hemlocks in our region, Headwaters’ hemlocks are under threat from HWA. During the initial treatment in 2017 and 2018 prior to the forest’s opening, HRI and the NC Forest Service chemically protected over 3,000 hemlocks on five stands consisting of ~170 acres and treated an additional ~1,050 trees in the following three years. In 2022, HRI returned to two of the first treatment areas within Headwaters to conduct Phase 2 treatments and also expanded the treatment areas to include an additional 474 hemlocks on 47 previously untreated acres. Because there are so many waterways within Headwaters, HRI is careful to employ best management practices to minimize the risk of contaminating streams. This includes using trunk-based treatment methods close to streams in order to reduce the possibility of insecticide moving from the soil into waterways. In total, HRI has treated ~400 acres within Headwaters State Forest, protecting thousands of hemlocks from HWA for years to come and helping them to keep their important role in the forest. 

Headwaters is a unique landscape that hosts vibrant ecosystems, ample recreation opportunities, and a stream network that ensures a healthy French Broad watershed. HRI has relished the opportunity to help maintain the beauty and critical ecosystem benefits of this forest, and we hope that others will be able to explore and cherish North Carolina’s newest State Forest now and for many generations into the future. 

Volunteer Spotlight: David Siripoonsup

The Hemlock Restoration Initiative could not do what we do without the help of our hard-working volunteers. Our “Volunteer Spotlight” highlights the contributions of one especially dedicated volunteer.

David Siripoonsup enjoying the forest understory

David Siripoonsup has been voluntarily contributing his time and knowledge to the HRI program since 2015 and was a tireless and devoted participant of our very first volunteer treatment days in the spring of 2016. Over the years he has helped with so much more including our biocontrol work, outreach and educational programs, even map making and videography.

David first experienced the cool shade of a hemlock forest over a decade ago backpacking in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. Those backpacking trips were his way of escaping the summer heat of West Virginia’s eastern panhandle where he was living at the time. Later on in 2015, David was intimately acquainted with hemlock conservation when he worked for the National Park Service (NPS), treating hemlocks in Big South Fork in Tennessee and Kentucky.

David resting in the shade of a hemlock along the trail

This previous experience with hemlock treatment equipped David to play an integral initial role in the early days of HRI. He shared insights and experiences from working with NPS, which influenced some of the hemlock treatment practices and methodologies HRI adopted and further developed in our early years.

David’s current job as a botanist with the NC Natural Heritage Program has him spending time in hemlock stands even when he’s not volunteering for HRI! He has recently been tasked with conducting a status assessment of the state’s Carolina hemlock populations (which will also no doubt inform HRI’s future work with the species). David said he always enjoys coming across a Carolina hemlock. He finds the ecology of the species and the ecosystems where it grows to be very interesting. He said it can be surprising when you see them because they are usually only found in very particular kinds of habitat. There’s a bit of intrigue to finding a stand, kind of like a mystery to solve. He’ll see one Carolina hemlock and then another one nearby, and then he tries to track down where they came from, where the old mother tree for that stand might be.

David preparing to treat a hemlock tree in Green River Game Land with a NCFS BRIDGE Crew member in 2017

Having been able to participate in most aspects of HRI’s work, what has been most interesting to David is beetle monitoring and working with HWA biocontrols. He said, “It’s a whole other microcosm when you are looking for them–paying attention to the microscopic world compared to a giant tree.” When asked what he would say to potential volunteers, David shared, “It’s a fun day out in the woods in interesting places you would never think of going. You’ll get to hug lots of trees too. It’s also a good way to learn how to treat your trees. Treatment is simple, but volunteering provides good practical experience to learn the technique.”

We want to thank David for all significant contributions to the HRI program over the years. He is truly a Hemlock Hero.

Upcoming Events

View from Dobson Knob

We have several events slated for the fall, including volunteer days, hikes, educational presentations, and tabling events. View our Events page for a full list of upcoming events. We continuously update the list, so check back regularly. If you haven’t done so already, you can also use this form to specify the kinds of event emails you receive.

Here is a selection of what’s coming up in the next month.

Hemlock Cone Collection 2022

Stages of a ripening hemlock cone
Photo courtesy of Jim Slye, NCFS

In recent years the NC Forest Service has been growing hemlocks from seed in great numbers in order to establish protocols for future production of hemlock strains that can be used for large scale forest restoration. This requires that they collect thousands of cones each year, and they can use your help! It is important that cones are collected at the right time and stored in a way that they do not rot or drop their seed. If you have hemlocks and would like to be involved, see this page on our website for more information about when and how to collect and where to deliver your cones after they are collected.

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