Quality trees grow in stands. Increasingly those involved in public and private aspects of managing and harvesting woodlands also need to stand together to protect these valuable resources. There’s no better example of the call for collaboration and forest conservation than in the efforts under way to save Pennsylvania’s state tree, the Eastern Hemlock.

More than 50 federal, state and local agencies: organizations and businesses; and core volunteer groups along the state’s northwestern tier have formed the High Allegheny Plateau Hemlock Conservation Partnership and are working together to stem the spread of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA) across Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Plateau, which sprawls in an arc across northwestern Pennsylvania and where large tracts are owned by commercial forest products companies. The focus area includes several popular state parks and the 517,000-acre Allegheny National Forest in Elk, Forest, McKean and Warren counties, and also spreads into state park lands in western New York.

The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an international nonprofit known for ecological collaboration, was brought in by the U.S. Forest Service and the staff of the Alleghany National Forest. Its three-pronged approach started in 2013. First, collaborators agreed on a list of hemlock values, then developed a prioritized set of Hemlock Conservation Areas (HCAs) before moving forward for funding.

A land ownership pattern on the plateau has encouraged cooperative response. “Nowhere else in the eastern United States can you address so much forest by talking with so few landowners,” said Sarah Johnson, a conservation geographic information system (GIS) analyst with TNC and the project’s lead coordinator.

The project area is an ecoregion, the High Allegheny Unglaciated Plateau, which encompasses 3,823 square miles. There are 119 total Hemlock Conservation Areas (HCAs) that cover 575 square miles, but the highest priority areas (27 of them) encompass some 180 square miles across 12 different public and private landowners, though the partnership involves additional groups and a successful volunteer corps, many of which have identified HWA infestations. Currently 50 priority HCAs have been “adopted” by volunteers for yearly monitoring.

What is HWA?

HWA is an aphid-like insect native to Asia where it feeds on trees related to North America’s hemlocks. It arrived in Virginia on nursery stock or in packing material in the 1920s and initially spread slowly. But recent mild winters, scientists believe, have fueled its invasion. HWA punctures hemlock needles and sucks out fluid. Infested trees turn gray and sickly. Without treatment, most trees die within five years. The best time to see HWA with the naked eye is when “in wool” from mid-November to late March when the invasive pest produces a white wooly covering to protect its eggs. The wool is often still visible on the underside of hemlock needles at the base of needles on branches even through late May. Overhead, an infected canopy looks thin and gray, not thick and green.

HWA can be limited by cooler temperatures in Pennsylvania, New York and areas along the New England coast influenced by Atlantic Ocean. The most recent cold winters have offered a reprieve for hemlocks, but research says it’s temporary: The next cold winter, HWA will be back with a vengeance.

As Pennsylvania’s state tree, the Eastern Hemlock, a foundational native conifer, is an iconic component of the vast majority of old growth forest, important ecologically in its role of protecting water quality and quantity and in winter as habitat and cover for critters, but historically hemlock has also been an important forest product source, especially in the state’s northern tier for tanning and wood chemical. Even with the price of hemlock way down and its timber value diminished it holds ecological value, particularly as thermal cover along riparian areas and streams. The cost benefit for leaving it outweighs profit value, even if you could turn one. Hemlock is a fine specimen for pulp harvest, but there’s lots of hardwood pulp out there.

Hemlock stands may not be entered for logging or harvesting, but that doesn’t keep private companies like Collins Pine Co. from involvement in the cooperative. Shortly after the 150-year-old fifth-generation family-owned company was approached as a partner, HWA was confirmed in its region. Some of the highly-ranked priority hemlock sites were on Collins’ lands. Ned Karger, a certified forester and land manager for Kane Hardwood, a division of Collins in Kane, Pennsylvania, and his staff have spent 20-plus days attending meetings and working on this project since.

Benefits of the partnership include continuing education for its forestry staff, the chance to interact with experts that a private landowner can’t employ, the ability to add ground-level input and expertise in its region, and the incorporation of volunteers, giving the company more eyes on the ground to monitor HWA.

“We’ve been kept up to date on other findings such as a study of HWA in Cook Forest State Park that documented high levels of HWA mortality from the recent extremely cold winter weather, and how silvicultural treatments (forest thinning strategies) are being used to manage hemlock timber stands to make the remaining hemlocks healthier and more resistant to HWA,” Karger, who also serves on the mass partnership’s steering committee, said.

A second project in the works

On a smaller scale, a second independent TNC project focuses on sections of forest in Northeast Pennsylvania that include its own 600-acre Woodbourne Forest Preserve and Wildlife Sanctuary in Susquehanna County – where there are several hemlocks over 40 inches in diameter – as an example of what’s possible. With its stewardship committee, it developed a plan using the model in the northwestern tier project. There’s now a treatment plan that will utilize a tablet pesticide (CoreTect, a Bayer product) buried by trees on a volunteer day. TNC has carved $30,000 out of its budget for the preserve for three years of treatment. Annually, $8,500 of the $10,000 is for chemical. It treated 484 trees in May this year.

“We can use our own preserve and process to make sure we’re ready for the types of challenges when we approach (other) individual landowners,” said Johnson, who explained there are also biocontrols available, though some are not as temperature-tolerant. He noted the balancing act that takes time to reach critical mass and the notion that an integrated approach may be best.

“We work with landowners with generally more means than average. They’re resource managers, familiar with invasive species, and those who employ others with experience. The way to engage individual private landowners is through voluntary attendance at workshops. You get folks in a room with experience who provide information and ways to help like affording (prevention) with cost-sharing.”

Despite progress, Johnson would like to be further along with more private forest landowners. Ideally, she’d like to see a type of program to loan equipment and other cost-sharing measures, but finding a steady funding stream is difficult. She envisions farm bill-type programs, or, with creativity, fitting such treatment within an existing farm bill. Though out of state, the Save Georgia’s Hemlocks website is a model for outreach to private landowners: http://www.savegeorgiashemlocks.org/index.htm

Cover photo: duckycards/istock