The Nature Conservancy and TreeTops Canopy Tour have launched a high-wire act to draw attention to the serious threat invasive insects and diseases pose to West Virginia’s forests and the businesses those forests support.
At a press conference on Wednesday, the conservation group and the outdoor recreation business pledged to work together to teach tourists from around the country about the hemlock woolly adelgid and other destructive, non-native pests and diseases that threaten the state’s forests.
“Saving West Virginia's hemlocks – and all the trees that make up our beloved forests – will take continued commitment from everyone who loves West Virginia,” said Dave Arnold, one of the owners of a successful whitewater rafting business.
Arnold and his partners opened TreeTops in May in a hemlock-lined valley near the New River Gorge. This summer, thousands of tourists visited the series of zip lines, bridges and platforms built in the high canopy of the 200-year-old forest. And while cold weather has chilled demand somewhat, the company responded to continuing demand by decided to keep the tour open as the snow flies.
Duis Often called the "redwood of the east," hemlocks can grow more than 150 feet tall. “Mountain forests are the foundation of nature-based tourism in West Virginia,” Arnold said. “The hemlocks really are key to the beauty of our river and creek canyons here.”
But the forest is threatened by the hemlock woolly adelgid, a tiny but destructive aphid-like insect readily visible by the white woolly substance that coats its body.
An adelgid infestation is recognizable by the appearance of tiny "cotton balls" at the base of hemlock needles. The pest traveled to the Eastern United States from Asia in the 1950s – probably on nursery stock. Over the past half century the infestation has spread throughout the East and is blamed for killing at least 80 percent of the hemlocks in Shenandoah National Park.
The adelgid is only one of the non-native insects and diseases that threaten West Virginia’s forests. Throughout North America, more than 400 non-native insects and plant diseases are now permanently established and wrecking havoc in forests, which are defenseless against the attacks because natural controls for these foreign species are missing in our ecosystems. These insects and diseases threaten our economy, our street trees, our landscaping, and forest products from furniture to baseball bats.
As part of the newly announced agreement, the Conservancy’s science staff will work with Treetops guides to add facts and figures about the adelgid and other insect and diseases into on-tour interpretive messages, which already include information about ecology, bird and wildlife. The agreement also envisions educational materials such as brochures and kiosk displays.
“The hemlock woolly adelgid is a good poster child for non-native insects and diseases because it’s a tough problem with limited immediate options,” said Rodney Bartgis, state director of The Nature Conservancy in West Virginia. “Our only hope of success is through developing strong partnerships and collaborative efforts like this agreement with TreeTops.”
Since the pest arrived in West Virginia, the state Department of Agriculture, with support from West Virginia Division of Forestry and Division of Natural Resources, has been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others to improve its ongoing efforts to protect hemlock. Nationally, the fight against non-native, invasive species like the adelgid cost American businesses, communities and landowners an estimated $137 billion a year.
"We have been conducting surveys to detect hemlock woolly adelgid across the state and are implementing control measures in specific places,” said West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Gus R. Douglass. “We are committed to continuing to work with private and public partners to address this pest – and the myriad of other insects and diseases impacting our forests, a critical economic resource for our state."
The Nature Conservancy and our partners also are working together to support revamped regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve its ongoing efforts to block non-native insects and diseases from entering the country, to protect American homeowners, businesses, agriculture and native forests.
First adopted in 1918, U.S. regulations governing international trade in plants have remained fundamentally unchanged as this trade has mushroomed to at least 500 million plants imported each year. If implemented, the USDA rules would create a new category called NAPPRA (Not Authorized for Importation Pending Pest Risk Assessment), under which the nation could quickly stop the import of some problem plants until procedures can be implemented to ensure they are safe.
Industry and conservationists also have launched a new educational campaign, Plant Smart, to encourage careful planting and to support actions that result in better protection of American’s trees.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.
(614) 339-8110 or
(614) 787-5545 (cell)