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Designation to help combat threats to national forests

By Katie Demeria

Numerous national forests throughout the United States were recently given official designations in an effort to fight one of the top threats to their health: exotic insect pests.

The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests were included in the designation, along with 94 other national forests in 35 states, according to a Virginia Department of Forestry news release.

The United States Department of Agriculture's Forest Service already has projects in place to combat these exotic pests, according to Rusty Rhea, an entomologist with the service.

The designation is part of the United States Farm Bill, which includes a number of provisions designed to protect forests.

"It was stamped as a national authorization to try to deal with insects and disease problems in national forests that were threatening, or about to threaten, forests on a large scale," Rhea said.

The George Washington and Jefferson National Forests already have programs in place to deal with a hefty threat to their trees -- the hemlock wooly adelgid infestation.

"It's a pretty serious problem," Rhea said.

The farm bill authorization, according to Rhea, allows forest authorities to increase tree treatment in order to fight the threat. But, he added, the authorization does not come with funding.

"Here we are with the ability to do something but not the resources," he said. "That's something that will work out in the next several years."

If funding comes relatively quickly, the timing could work well. Rhea said authorities have just recently developed some new tools to deal with the adelgids.

One is a biological control, which includes releasing several species of predatory beetles that eat the adelgids. Forest authorities consider this to be a long-term sustainable hope. They have also refined some chemical treatments.

Virginia has already suffered a significant amount of damage since the exotic insect was introduced from Asia through a collector in Richmond in the 1950s, Rhea said.

Shenandoah National Park, he pointed out, has already lost 95 percent of its hemlocks to the insects, which infect trees and feed on the stored plant material, basically starving it to death.

"There's no resistance in the trees, so basically once they get infested they succumb after about four years," Rhea said.

While there are no immediate plans to restore the hemlocks that have already been destroyed, Rhea said seeds have been collected, so replanting is a possibility.

Hemlocks create ecosystems that cannot be mimicked by other tree species, Rhea pointed out. No other conifer grows along river corridors, for example, and creates the dense, dark area ideal for various species.

Some migratory birds also specifically use the hemlocks, and it is unclear right now what will happen to them as the trees continue to disappear.

"We can't save all the trees, but we want to save some representative populations so we can maintain these ecosystems and give the flora and fauna that require them a place to be," Rhea said. "It's a fairly dramatic situation."

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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