Before you go …
If you like what you are reading and believe in independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism like ours—journalism the way it should be—please contribute to keep us going. Reporting like this isn’t free to produce and we cannot do this alone. Thank you!
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and old-growth forests in Western North Carolina. The Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its dedication with a rededication ceremony on Saturday, July 30. To read more about old growth forests in Western North Carolina, read the first installment in the series or a slide show from the forest.
It’s easy to see why folks love the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness.
Thousands of visitors are drawn each year to the sight of its majestic trees – enormous by East Coast standards – and the place boasts many of the characteristics of the ancient, primary forest that once covered the southern mountains. On Saturday, July 30, more will come to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the dedication of Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest with an event including a Cherokee traditional Blessing of the Land, the reading of poetry and more.
But on the eve of the area’s anniversary, it’s clear, too, that the recovery of these stands have faced real challenges. Among the most publicized is the woolly adelgid, but it’s not the only challenge facing the wilderness area, which is arguably the best-known and most-sought-out grouping of old growth in Western North Carolina.
The hemlock woolly adelgid, which first arrived on Japanese nursery stock in the 1950s and appeared in the southern mountains around 2001, has killed many hemlocks in the area. A large number of standing, dead trees along the main trail in Joyce Kilmer, which were killed by the pests, were regarded by forest managers as a public safety hazard.
But closing the trail was not a desirable option, as Joyce Kilmer receives some 40,000 visitors each year. Chainsaws are not allowed, as motorized equipment is excluded from designated wilderness by law.
So the U.S. Forest Service elected to use dynamite to take down about 150 huge trees, using the reasoning that the exploded trunks would resemble natural snags left behind after a storm event.
Exploded trees raise questions
The sight of the snags is a bit of a shock to some visitors, especially those who knew Joyce Kilmer before the adelgid invaded. The trail leading to the Poplar Cove Loop, once cool and shaded by the big hemlocks, is now bathed in sunlight, the shredded trunks of the hemlocks standing like splintered sentries. Sunlight drenches the ground; the shade-loving trillium wildflowers are bleached from too much sun and the lush green moss is gone.
The Forest Service says safety is its number one priority, and Deputy District Ranger Lauren Stull says most visitors accept the change. “Nearly all the hikers we encounter on the trail do not realize that the Forest Service performed the safety measure involving the dead hemlocks,” she says. “They believe the trees were downed as the result of a natural event, which was our goal. Almost every visitor we have spoken with said they understand why the Forest Service took the public safety measure that it took.”
Meanwhile, some comments received by the agency during its public process on the decision to dynamite the dead hemlocks raise long-standing questions that remain unaddressed. “Falling trees are a natural hazard that anyone who enters a Wilderness must be willing to accept,” wrote George Nikas, director of the national group Wilderness Watch. If visitors expect a safe forest free from hazards, he suggests, “then the Forest Service has failed in its educational mission to inform visitors of what Wilderness is all about.”
Among visitors to Joyce Kilmer recently queried by CPP, reaction to the sight of the shredded trunks of the dynamited trees is mixed.
Carla Brank came from Asheville recently for a week to fish in the stream alongside the parking lot with her family. While she admits she didn’t hike the trail once shaded by the big trees, Brank said she has faith in the agencies working to protect the resource. “Our grandchildren will be able to come here and fish,” she says.
In contrast, Alene Arnold of Nashville, Tenn., who was hiking Joyce Kilmer’s loop trail with husband, Cris, was returning to Joyce Kilmer for the third time. “The minute we put our foot on the path, we were surprised” by the change in character of the place, she says. “We were just wondering if we should bring the kids,” who might be upset by the sight of the exploded trees, she says.
Is Joyce Kilmer still old growth?
“If you look at the area, it’s pretty dramatically changed,” says Hugh Irwin, conservation planner with the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, “but what surprised me is how many large trees are left. It was a hemlock-dominated forest, but there are a lot of other kinds of trees there that are more apparent now – tulip trees, magnolias. I’d argue that’s still old growth, very changed in character for the short term, but those will be replaced by other trees, and it still has value in terms of its structure, and it still has old trees.”
But Will Blozan, who now runs his own business, Appalachian Arborists, worked with the U.S. National Park Service for five years to document the old-growth hemlock stands in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park prior to the adelgid’s arrival. “Joyce Kilmer is slaughtered,” he laments. “The only living (hemlock) trees are those treated with the insecticide.”
Blozan feels the National Park Service behaved proactively in working to identify its best hemlock stands and inoculated them with a systemic insecticide before the pest struck. Those stands contain healthy trees today, he points out, thus serving as a living seed bank until a long-term solution to the adelgid is found.
In contrast, the Forest Service’s Joyce Kilmer no longer qualifies as old growth, Blozan says. “The adelgid erased the naturalness, because it was a human-introduced insect,” he says, referencing a strict definition for identifying old growth as areas with no signs of human disturbance.
“There’s no reason those trees had to die,” he says. “The Forest Service decided to use the least-proven method (of treatment): the predatory beetles. They had never been proven to work anywhere in the field. They survive, but they don’t preserve forest. They’re not part of a short-term preservation strategy. … So instead of live, healthy hemlocks, we can look at blown-up snags and dead trees. Joyce Kilmer is a very depressing place for me. It’s a thorn in the side of our ecological legacy.”
Old-growth researcher Neil Pederson, who staged his first wedding at Joyce Kilmer, concurs in part, saying that when folks propose using so-called biological controls like the predatory beetles in real ecosystems, “I think of the little old woman who swallowed the fly.” Bringing in an exotic species to control another exotic species presents the potential for other problems, he says. Then again, he says, “we didn’t know that the adelgid was going to kill hemlocks in the southern part of their range in just three to five years.”
But Pederson sees hope. “Life finds a way,” he says. “It’s fascinating. You can hit this planet with an asteroid, kill off all the top animals, change ecosystems for thousands of years, and yet this fuzzy little thing called a mammal pops up.
“Old growth forests are going to change, there’s no doubt about it. The loss of hemlock will be bad; it could cause local extirpations of animals and plants, but some things are going to adapt. Life is amazing.”