We’re in the midst of winter, and for HRI that usually means a little less time spent in the field and a little more in the office. We love being outside treating trees and looking for beetles, but we are also thrilled to have time to bring you this newsletter. 2021 was a topsy turvy year for everyone, but at HRI we were still able to get out, treat a lot of trees, and engage with many fellow hemlock lovers. You can take a quick look at a visual summary of our 2021 on our website. As we look forward to 2022, we’re excited for another year of helping conserve and restore the hemlocks, a feat that would never be possible without support from our great partners, volunteers, and supporters. If you’d like to join us on any upcoming volunteer days or outings, be sure to check our events page! In this newsletter, we present a roundup of all things HRI, from an interview with one of our most dedicated volunteers to highlighting recent research on HWA biocontrol and everything in between.

Table of Contents

2021 By the Numbers

HCA Highlight: Grandfather Mountain State Park

Conservation Connection Corner: Land Trusts

Research Central: Beetlemania

Volunteer Spotlight: Chuck Scharff

The Inside View: An Unfortunate Necessity

HCA Highlight: Grandfather Mountain State Park

A view of Grandfather Mountain in the distance.

Welcome to what will hopefully become an HRI newsletter staple: the HCA Highlight. But first, you may be asking, what is an HCA anyway? HCA stands for Hemlock Conservation Areas, which are discrete areas in forests with a significant or valuable hemlock component where some hemlock woolly adelgid intervention — either chemical, biological, or both — has taken place. While some HCAs were established a decade or more ago with chemical treatment by state agencies in North Carolina, others have been established since the creation of HRI, and many of the older HCAs have recently been expanded to include additional trees. In the HCA Highlight, we plan to give an overview of an HCA that we are actively working in to shed light on some of these special areas and the work we do there. Our first entry: Grandfather Mountain State Park.

Grandfather Mountain is one of the most iconic North Carolina landmarks. Originally the mountain was entirely under private ownership, but 2,600 acres of the undeveloped portion of Grandfather Mountain were purchased by the state of North Carolina and turned into a state park in 2009. The rest of the mountain remains under the private ownership of Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, which operates and maintains several attractions including the famous mile high swinging bridge, a nature museum, and animal habitats. In combination, the Park and attraction side of the mountain host over 300,000 visitors every year, and it is no secret why — Grandfather Mountain has some of the most scenic views and unique habitat in all of Western North Carolina. 

As well known as Grandfather Mountain is, some visitors may not realize that the state park side is rich in healthy hemlocks, especially along the Profile Trail. A Hemlock Conservation Area, which now resides entirely within the State Park boundary, was established on the mountain nearly 20 years ago to protect these majestic trees. Hemlocks border the Profile Trail along much of its first few miles, with several occurring within the first 50 yards of the trail. The trail undulates across the forest above the Watauga River, with many more under and mid-story hemlocks coming into view. As the trail begins to ascend, there are several stands of large hemlock trees, with many in excellent health thanks to early treatment efforts.

A seasonal State Park employee measures the DBH of a large hemlock.

Over the past two years, HRI has led teams of volunteers coupled with park staff to treat hemlocks along the Profile Trail. In October 2020, formerly unprotected trees were treated along the beginning section of trail that originates from the new trailhead. In November 2021, our efforts focused on trees further along the trail up to Foscoe View that had previously been treated by park staff. In total, over 1,800 trees were treated, some large, some small, with an average diameter of around 6 inches. HRI also set up a monitoring plot, which will help keep an eye on hemlock health and determine the effectiveness of treatment within the park over time.

HRI and State Park staff work to treat hemlocks at Grandfather Mountain.

There are also some high elevation hemlock populations on the mountain that are in very good health, possibly due to the microclimates that surround them at these high elevations. Hemlock woolly adelgid has been shown to perform poorly in cold climates and can be knocked back by extreme winter conditions. As the elevation increases at Grandfather Mountain, the winters become harsher. This cold weather in combination with nearby releases of Laricobius beetles may be keeping HWA populations low and over time this particular scenario may be well suited for an integrated pest management approach. For visitors starting from the Profile Trailhead, entry into the park will be free; however, if you want to visit the swinging bridge and other features in the attraction side of the mountain, you will need to make a reservation and pay an admission fee. More information about Grandfather Mountain and all it has to offer can be found at the links below.

State Park: https://www.ncparks.gov/grandfather-mountain-state-park/home

Private Attraction: https://grandfather.com/

Conservation Connection Corner: Land Trusts

HRI works with a variety of partners to treat hemlocks and spread the word about hemlock conservation. These range from state, federal, and local governments to private landowners, universities, and more. From the beginning, HRI has also worked in partnership with conservation land trusts, which are non-profit organizations that either acquire land or place it into a conservation easement for the purpose of limiting development and preserving open space and natural areas. These organizations play an important role in maintaining the integrity of various ecosystems, and sometimes these ecosystems include stands of hemlocks. In such cases, HRI can serve as a partner to help conserve hemlocks on properties managed or supported by land trusts. In the past, we have helped treat hemlocks with a variety of the region’s conservation land trusts including The Nature Conservancy, Blue Ridge Conservancy, Conserving Carolina, and Southeast Regional Land Conservancy, in addition to the three highlighted below. 

Highlands Cashiers Land Trust

A workshop participant treats a hemlock tree at the Zachary-Tolbert House.

The Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust (HCLT) is North Carolina’s very first land trust, and as the name implies, it protects land in the Highlands-Cashiers region. HRI has been lucky enough to work with HCLT on a number of occasions to protect hemlocks. A few of the properties they manage feature some of the last remaining old growth stands of hemlocks in North Carolina, one of which contains the Cheoah tree — the largest known living hemlock.

In November of 2021, HRI partnered with HCLT and Cashiers Historical Society to put on an educational workshop to teach people about the tree treating process and, as a byproduct, chemically protected 34 hemlocks around the grounds of the Zachary-Tolbert House in Cashiers. The grounds feature several buildings that may be as old as the hemlocks that line the surrounding roads and trails. Some of the larger trees feature diameters over 30 inches and tower over the neighboring canopy of trees. Being able to simultaneously educate curious hemlock helpers and protect majestic hemlocks that surround such an iconic area was a thrilling experience, and we hope to maintain a thriving relationship with HCLT and the Cashiers Historical Society for years to come.  

Mainspring Conservation Trust 

The staff of HRI and Mainspring pose for a photo with volunteers before beginning a treatment day.

Mainspring Conservation Trust was formed in 1997 after a group of locals started meeting to discuss the worrying pace of development that surrounded them and placed the mountains, streams, and ancient farmlands they cherished into peril. With the mission to conserve and restore land and connect people to the natural treasures around them, Mainspring works across seven counties in Western North Carolina and northern Georgia. HRI partnered with Mainspring in December of last year for two volunteer treatment days at the newly constructed Piney Knob trail system in Murphy, NC. With the help of 17 of Mainspring’s dedicated volunteers over two days, we treated hundreds of heavily impacted hemlocks that line some of the most popular trails at Piney Knob. The hemlocks here provide great benefit to the many waterways that snake through the property and add unique beauty to the landscape for the bikers, hikers, and runners that frequent the area. Now, with the help of treatment, we hope these hemlocks will stand tall and strong for the foreseeable future.

Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy  

The entrance to Chestnut Mountain Nature Park.

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) office is located just a few miles away from HRI headquarters in Asheville, NC. Since 1974, SAHC has protected over 75,000 acres of ecosystems, clean water, farmland, and beautiful places for people to recreate in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. HRI has a long-standing relationship with SAHC, and we are excited to be putting on a volunteer treatment day with them this February at the new Chestnut Mountain Nature Park. The Park, which will soon be transferred over to the Town of Canton, encompasses over 400 acres of beauty and will include many miles of trails for hikers, bikers, and runners when it opens to the public later this year. There are hemlocks throughout the property, with a dense smattering of smaller hemlocks towards the bottom of the mountain and larger trees bordering some of the trails that lead to the mountain’s peak. The area has faced a fair share of erosion, so treating the hemlocks here will be an important step to shore up the soil on the steep banks and slopes of Chestnut Mountain.

Research Central: Beetlemania

When you think of hemlocks being protected against hemlock woolly adelgid, what comes to mind? You might conjure up an image of HRI staff and volunteers fitted out with large tool belts, loaded down with pesticide, tromping through the woods to find hemlocks to treat with a carefully measured dose of chemical. While chemical treatment is an essential and highly effective method employed by HRI and many others in the fight against HWA, there are other hemlock protection measures being evaluated to stave off the adelgid, one of which places the burden of labor not on humans but on an entirely different species.

Beetles in the genus Laricobius specialize in eating adelgids, and some species happen to prefer our greatest nemesis, HWA. The issue is that none of the species that prefer feeding on HWA are native to the eastern US where hemlocks are in great decline. After rigorous testing to ensure there was minimal risk in introducing this new species, the Laricobius nigrinus beetle was released in the eastern US starting in 2003. L. nigrinus is native to the western US and Canada where it was found to be a masterful muncher of HWA, and where hemlocks do not succumb to HWA. The beetles are black and small, visible to the naked eye but hard to identify without magnification. Small as they are, they ruthlessly rip into the egg sacs of adelgid and feast away on the hemlock pest. Another beetle in the Laricobius genus, L. osakensis was brought over from its native land of Japan and, after similar testing, began being released on the east coast in 2012. The thought is that L. nigrinus and L. osakensis, along with other predator species, could become a key component in the long-term integrated pest management (IPM) of HWA.

A magnified view of a Laricobius nigrinus beetle on a hemlock needle.

Since L. osakensis has been released much more recently, there is less research and knowledge about its ability to establish and put a dent in HWA populations. L. nigrinus, having been released nearly 20 years ago, has a greater body of knowledge built around its potential to protect hemlocks from HWA, though there is still a need for further study. There have recently been a multitude of studies carried out by researchers in the hemlock conservation sphere trying to understand if L. nigrinus is an effective means of biological control for HWA. In total, there have been over 400,000 beetles released across more than 1,000 unique sites since the initial releases in 2003. To be sure that beetles are establishing, scientists undertake studies in which they sample hemlocks at beetle release sites or in surrounding areas for the presence of L. nigrinus. This typically involves taking branch clippings back to the lab to look for larvae or using a “beat sheet” to literally beat the adult beetles off HWA-infested branches and onto a light colored surface so that they can be identified. Results from across the eastern US show that L. nigrinus beetles have successfully established. There are documented cases of lively populations being found in areas where there has not been a release in more than 10 years. Further, there are many instances of L. nigrinus being found miles away from the closet release site, and even in urban areas in some cases. This is consistent with HRI’s own experience with beetle releases and monitoring efforts; we have found beetles at more than 100 sites across WNC in a variety of environments, sometimes quite far from known release sites. It is clear that the beetles can travel large distances to find new HWA-infested trees to use as a food source, and they can even be expected to be found in our cities and towns, away from more dense forest ecosystems.

L. nigrinus (right) situated next to a common lady bug (left) illustrates the small size of the species.

The establishment of our beetle friends is great news, but the larger question is are they successfully limiting HWA populations enough to improve the chances of hemlock survival? Studies show that both L. nigrinus and L. osakensis are effective at disturbing the egg sacs of HWA and feasting on the adelgid during the winter. However, Laricobius beetles are only active during the fall, winter, and early spring, meaning that during other times of the year, HWA is not bothered by them. Overall, there needs to be more work done to determine exactly what kind of effect the beetles are having on HWA. This can be hard however, as there needs to be a healthy, established population of the predator beetles and a high presence of HWA to truly determine their effect on the pest. Further, additional factors such as cold winters or other environmental conditions can simultaneously impact HWA populations, making it hard to isolate the effect of the beetles. The going thought is that L. nigrinus and L. osakensis will be a key tool in the fight against HWA in the years to come, especially if other predators can be established that will feed on HWA during parts of the year in which they are inactive. Currently, there has been little evidence to show that the beetles can adequately control HWA infestations by themselves, but along with other predator species, continued chemical control, and silvicultural methods, L. nigrinus and L. osakensis are making an impact. As the beetles further establish and more research is done, their impact will become better understood. Maybe one day, the beetles and other biological control predators will take over the majority of hemlock protection, and we’ll be able to sit back and laugh about the days we used to bend over backwards to administer chemical treatment to hemlock trees. Until then though, we’ll be out there right along with the beetles, doing our part. The chemical applicators and the HWA eaters, working in tandem to save the hemlocks.

Volunteer Spotlight: Chuck Scharff

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.

Some people volunteer with HRI because they want to learn how to treat their hemlocks, some want to be involved in their community, some want to learn something new, and some are just looking for a fun opportunity to be outside and explore new areas of WNC. For Chuck Scharff, it’s the combination of these that drives him to continue giving his time and energy as a volunteer with HRI. 

Chuck Scharff geared up to treat some hemlocks.

Chuck was first introduced to us on a cold, breezy January day in 2018. He had been wanting to learn more about the hemlocks on his property, so when he received an email from the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy that they were hosting a hemlock-focused hike with HRI, he signed up right away. Not long after the hike, Chuck joined us for his first volunteer treatment day in Headwaters State Forest. Since then, Chuck has volunteered in just about every type of public land where HRI works, including several state forests, parks, and game lands; national forests; and even privately conserved Hemlock Conservation Areas. In addition to volunteering at more than a dozen HRI treatment days, Chuck has also helped hemlocks by monitoring Laricobius beetle populations, collecting cones for the NC Forest Service, and planting hemlock seedlings for research. In the last couple years his wife, Kimber, has been joining him on HRI volunteer days as well.

Chuck and Kimber moved to Fairview, NC, in 2017 from Long Island, NY, where Chuck worked for 30 years as a police officer and later a detective. Having visited the Asheville area in the ‘90s, Chuck thought of Western North Carolina, with its natural beauty and plentiful opportunity for outdoor recreation, as a nice place to settle down for retirement. Plus, it was a nice change from the humid summers of Long Island.

Chuck and some other hikers at the top of Ferguson Knob in January 2018.

Chuck is inclined to volunteerism and giving back to his community, not just with HRI but also through work including maintaining trails and helping at Hickory Nut Gap Farms just down the road from his house. Additionally, he spends his time keeping bees, and this fall, as a way to keep his brain active and learning new things, he started studying to become certified as an EMT. As a beekeeper, Chuck understands the potential negative impacts of pesticides on pollinators, saying, “It was encouraging to me that HRI is very cognizant of that during applications.”

Chuck thinks that volunteering with HRI is “a fantastic opportunity to not only learn about hemlocks but to get out into areas in Western North Carolina that you might not know about or have access to–wonderful areas that are not on the tourist maps, filled with cool waterfalls, dynamite gorges, streams and rivers, and sides of mountains.” One of the most rewarding parts of volunteering with HRI for Chuck is getting his neighbors involved with treating their own hemlocks. With the knowledge and skills gained from helping HRI, he has been able to lead the charge to protect the hemlocks in his neighborhood. Overall, Chuck enjoys volunteering with HRI for the simple things; he loves “getting some outdoors time, getting some exercise, making new friends, learning some science, and just doing good.”

As much as Chuck loves volunteering with HRI, we’re probably even bigger fans of him. His positive presence, can-do attitude, big smile, and great stories are always a welcome addition to our days in the field. Every time we see Chuck sign up for a field day, we know it’s going to be a good one.

The Inside View: An Unfortunate Necessity

By Aaron Whittemore, HRI AmeriCorps Stewardship and Conservation Education Associate

AmeriCorps is a national service program that partners its members with organizations of various focus and scale to carry out service work that strengthens communities. HRI has been a host site for AmeriCorps service members since 2016. Our members serve in all aspects of the HRI program bringing fresh energy, unique perspectives, and immense effort to our work.  Below you can read some thoughts from our current AmeriCorps Project Conserve member, Aaron Whittemore, on his experience in this new role so far. 

HRI AmeriCorps member Aaron Whittemore gazes out at the Linville Gorge.

When I first started serving with HRI, my knowledge of forests and their management was quite slim. Now, several months into my AmeriCorps term, I’ve learned a lot, and perhaps my most striking realization is the sheer amount of management that is carried out in our forests. The trails that wind through our woods are flanked not by untouched wilderness, but by carefully protected, manipulated, and preserved environments. Without such human intervention, the places that we love to recreate within and that house the intrinsically precious plants and animals of our world would likely deteriorate. 

Of course forest management is a human-created affair. Left alone in a world without human influence, the forest and its vast diversity of flora and fauna can go on growing, living, and dying with no need of help from us. However we don’t live in that world, but rather a world that bears the signs of human influence at every turn. These disturbances are easy to read in our forests. Roads slash through them, dark and strewn with debris. Many animals that inhabit them are fewer in number or have all but disappeared. Certain plant species are succumbing to changes in climate brought on by industry and pollution. Further still, many forests have been cleared to make room for our cities and agriculture, or have been turned into lumber and paper products. If these forests grow back, it takes hundreds of years for them to return to the old growth state they once embodied. Making such changes to our forested landscapes has allowed us to live very comfortable, and in many ways, objectively better lives. However, we have made these changes to the forests, and it is therefore our responsibility to help forests heal.

Aaron speaks to staff from Grandfather Mountain State Park and Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation on an HRI hike.

Many signs of human influence in the forest are spectacular for their ability to be easily seen, but here at HRI, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with an issue that’s often hidden in plain sight. Invasive species are a major issue within our forests — there are thousands of unique, documented invasive species in the US today. At HRI, we focus on only one: the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA). It’s been extremely rewarding to engage in the chemical treatment, beetle monitoring, and research support that HRI undertakes to stave off HWA. Without such intervention, the majority of our hemlocks in Western North Carolina would transform into skinny, spiny, and gray skeletons, remaining standing for only as long as their trunks could resist the inevitable rot and decay that awaits. 

Sadly, many hemlocks have already met this end. The loss of these iconic and ecologically important trees detracts from the overall health and aesthetics of our forests. Hemlocks, when healthy, have a lovely shaggy appearance that provides habitat, food, and refuge for many of our favorite forest critters. They also play an important role in reducing erosion and regulating stream temperatures which benefit our waterways. It is imperative to preserve as many of the hemlocks as possible, and this echoes many similar efforts in forest management that seek to prevent decline of our ecosystems. 

In many ways, it is unfortunate that our forests need such large amounts of management, but to keep the ill-effects of human influence in check, we must remain active in their protection and hopeful improvement. In these first few months with HRI, I’ve seen firsthand the effect that proper forest management can have. The forest looks and functions better with hemlocks abound, a thought echoed by many volunteers, members of the public, and various forest management professionals I’ve interacted with. The broader management of our forests is perhaps an unfortunate necessity, but in the world we live in today, it surely makes our natural areas a more appealing and ecologically robust place for all living things.

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