September 29, 2014

Slow Fires in the Great Smoky Mountains

Vista, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, October 20, 2007

Fast fires consume California. They take men's homes and the habitat of "protected" and unprotected species without fear or favor; without asking permission of the coastal commission or the EPA. Whether sparked by nature or arson, the decades of overbuilding, misbegotten "environmentally correct" management policies, the logjam of litigation that prevents stewardship, all combine -- like the fires and the winds themselves combine -- into "the perfect firestorm."

Many, afraid to blame utopian politics and fanatic environmentalism as two of the culprits, blame "nature;" the only admitted vengeful god of our age. But nature, as wise men know, always sides with the hidden flaw, and the flaws hidden here are those of men, foolish men who believe they can control and terraform the planet they inhabit. The walls of flame and hills of smoldering ash are the answer to their green hubris.

A similar instance of eco-utopianism currently seethes in the Great Smokey Mountains. The fire there burns much more slowly and selectively, but it burns all the same. In the end, a spark or a maniac will touch it with flame and then it too will rage up and destroy that which the fire's enablers most wish to save. And when the ashes cool and everything is bare and dead, their answer will be -- as it always is -- "we need more laws to protect that which our present laws have destroyed."

The slow fire in the Smoky Mountains is a pest, the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, that attacks and kills the hemlocks in the park. The adelgid has been having its way with hemlocks throughout the eastern seaboard since it first snuck into the area from Asia in the 1920s. The park service reports that:

"Over 800 acres of old-growth hemlock trees grow in the Smokies -- more than in any other national park. Younger hemlock forests cover an additional 90,000 acres of land in the park. Originally discovered here in 2002, adelgid infestations have now spread throughout the park's hemlock forests. In some areas infested trees have already begun to die."

"Begun?" It would be more accurate to say that in pretty much all areas that can be observed, the hemlocks have not just "already begun to die," but are -- in fact -- stone cold dead and gone.

Here is a photograph I took from a viewpoint in the Smoky Mountain park two weeks ago:

Pretty, isn't it? Actually, to stand in the place that this was taken and to look out over the mountains is more than just "pretty." It is overwhelming to the senses as ridge upon ridge and valley leading onto valley fill and brims with the reds, the scarlets, the oranges and the yellows of full autumn.

If you do not look too close. If you do not look too deep.

Here's a detail from the photograph above:

The grey spindly splotches are the dead hemlocks and they are legion in every direction. They are visible from every overlook. They are dead and they are dry. Pitch-soaked pine torches waiting for the match. And, we assume, that deeper into the park where only intrepid hikers and members of the Forest Service patrol, the carnage goes on and on.

What's the Forest Service plan to halt or control this parasite that destroys its host and leaves stands of tinder in its wake? Soap and beetles. That's it, soap and beetles.

While there is a pesticide, Imidacloprid, that works against this plague, it can contaminate the soil and the watershed for 30 days in water and 27 days in soil or, in aerobic soil, up to around 3 years. If you have hemlocks on your property and are either careful or stealthy you can save your own personal hemlocks. But since it is, after all, a pesticide, this is politically impossible to use in a National Forest. The Sierra Club does not, after all, approve.

(The Park Service does note that this insecticide is being used on hemlocks "near campsites" and on "tall trees." I guess the hope is that if you can see healthy hemlocks you won't think the service is losing the war so badly. Call it the "Park Service lied and hemlocks died" program.)

Instead, the current plan is to use an "insecticidal" (sounds nicer than "insecticide" doesn't it?) soap solution that must be applied to each and every tree that is infested. And no, you can't spray the soap suds from the air. Yes, each and every hemlock surviving in the "800 old growth areas" and "90,000" other acres has to be individually tended to and scrubbed.

Call me crazy, but I just don't see the Forest Service -- even if its budget were to be increased 10-fold -- as having the ability or the technology to wash down all these trees. Much less get to them. In terms of stopping the infestation, washing down the trees seems to me to be a chunk of ecologically-correct make work.

Do not despair over the bogus "soap solution." There is also a back-up plan. That plan involves releasing a beetle. A teeny-tiny beetle that will, someday, increase in numbers enough to destroy the parasite on the hemlocks. "The park has released tiny black lady-beetles that feed only on adelgids. They have been thoroughly studied in the field and do not congregate in large numbers and do not leave the forest during their summer dormant period."

These beetles were brought in in 2002 and it is, of course, far too soon for their populations to have had a noticeable effect on reversing the slow fire in the park. Meanwhile, the parasite continues to kill the hemlocks and leave the towering trunks of tinder behind.

But to keep hope alive and to give the impression of actually doing something effective, the Forest Service has a back-up to the back-up and a back-up to that as well. (Fret not, none of these involves actually using something that is known to kill the pest on contact.)

According to a brochure stapled to a notice-board at the park's visitors' center, the service is essentially getting ready to lose what it has probably already lost. This brochure attempts to answer the now very frequently asked question, "Why are so many trees dead, Ranger Rick?" After the standard blather about soapy water and beetles, the brochure admits that the Forest Service has sequestered many seedlings elsewhere in a protected and undisclosed environment. Not only that but it has also frozen many seeds in seed-banks so they can be replanted after the current plague has run its course and the parasite died off for lack of a host.

I suspect that under this plan, the hemlocks in the Great Smoky Mountains can be back on track in, say, two or three centuries. This assumes, of course, that the seedlings, the seed-banks, and the United States Forest Service along with the United States lasts that long. Still, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

A week of partial rains has dampened the land and the forest in this region of Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountains. For now the threat of real fire has receded here. But the rains have only moistened the surviving hemlocks and given a drink to the pest that burns them slowly. In the hemlock forests of the east coast the slow fires rage on, out of control, and we refuse to use the one tool that could -- maybe, just maybe -- put them out. Why? Because the eco-fanatics in the Forest Service and elsewhere just don't like them. For them, forests with vast stands of dead trees are fine. For them these places are paradise....

Cue The Eagles:

"They call it paradise
I don't know why
You call someplace paradise,
kiss it goodbye"

Posted by Vanderleun at September 29, 2014 1:30 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

So the cycle of nature goes on. Once the hemlocks are gone in that area, those pests will have finished off their food supply and they will die off. Hemlocks will return via bird poop and wind borne seeds.

The idea that we can avert all natural occurrences is idiotic. Those dead trees will at some point fall over, rot and become part of the food chain for the understory. And by their falling over, they'll knock down other trees opening up the ground to low growing plants which the fauna needs to live. Dense forests harbor no life except pilated woodpeckers and mice. Animals live on the edge where trees and meadows meet.

Eastern forests are mostly deciduous, which makes them mostly fire proof. The one thing we can do is stop that stupid reg that the enviro-nazis had the Forest Service place: Preventing people from using deadwood for making campfires. All that detritus left is the fuel that makes those western fires so fast burning and hard to put out.

Posted by: Vermont Woodchuck at September 29, 2014 6:33 AM

"Those dead trees will at some point fall over, rot and become part of the food chain for the understory."


The perhaps more problematic invasion is the balsam wooly adelgid. This one is going after the spruce-fir trees that tend to appear only at the highest elevations in the GSMNP. These stands are largely coniferous and much more susceptible to fire.

Sadly even if the Park Service were willing to use pesticides it would still be a losing battle as they could never eradicate the insects outside the park and so would at best be caught in a slow motion defeat.

Given that, the best solution may be to accelerate the process that you note - rather than leaving the dead stands upright, at least drop them in place in order to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and also to hasten the decay process.

The park you see today is not the park that people will see in fifty or seventy five years. Of course the same could have been said seventy five years ago - when the chestnut blight was having it's way with the park.

Posted by: ThomasD at September 29, 2014 8:04 AM

My husband and I hiked a number of trails of this majestic area. The saddest sight was at the top of Clingman's Dome, where huge swaths of these giant dead toothpicks stood poking up everywhere. My husband's job being in the fire service, we immediately commented to one another, "Wow! look at all those torches just waiting to be lit up." Maybe that's the NPS' ultimate solution.

Posted by: Anne Rose at September 29, 2014 9:52 AM

Trees are attacked by insects when they are weak. Strong trees resist insect attacks. Generally. On Mt. Mitchell there was a prolonged drought. Not a total drought, just a lessening of the annual rainfall. Perfectly normal weather pattern. The Balsam Firs suffered. They live at high altitude on thin soil above solid rock. Many died, bugs came in, people blamed the bugs and fungus and everything else. Oooooooooooops. The area has cycled back to wetter and the trees are once again very happy.

Then there was the problem with the locust trees. It appears that we are currently in the middle of that "crisis".

Then the hemlocks. We are at the beginning of this "crisis". Oh my.

In a hundred years the park will look very much like it did during the previous cycle that was similar to the one a hundred years from now. Just like the park currently looks a lot like it did during the last cycle when the hemlocks were stressed. Around, around we go.

Posted by: Larry Geiger at September 30, 2014 6:43 AM

Ignoring the effects of invasive species not present prior to the early 1900s (both adelgids, chestnut blight, emerald ash borer, etc.) will not make them go away.

Both they, and their effects are here to stay.

Posted by: ThomasD at September 30, 2014 7:19 AM