Richard Preston, author of scary non-fiction biological books such as The Hot Zone, has now turned his attention in this week’s New Yorker magazine to a killer stalking the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The killer is the hemlock woolly adelgid, a tiny bug that kills hemlock trees. Eastern hemlock trees, says Preston, are the redwoods of the east. I remember following Abrams Creek down out of Cades Cove and hiking down past Abram’s Falls to a wonderful, cathedral-like grove of hemlocks. They were stunningly beautiful.
And now they are dying. These bugs came from Asia and may very well kill off all the hemlocks–in the Smokies and elsewhere. Preston recounts how the Park, due to bureaucratic stupidity, spent only $250,000 this year to fight the bugs, while in previous years it spent $16 million to develop plans for an idiotic scheme by Rep. Charles Taylor, the congressman from westernmost North Carolina–fortunately defeated in 2006–to build a highway within the park.
Here in Colorado, where I live, we have our own invasion of tree-killing bugs. Here is a photo shot at a cabin where you can see trees killed by the mountain pine beetle. With a mile of that cabin are hundreds of thousands of dead or dying trees.
These little bastards are laying waste to the western side of the Rockies. In their process of killing trees, they introduce a kind of fungus that turns the wood blue. You can see it here.
All these dying hemlocks make me blue. Some of the last chunks of virgin forest in the Eastern United States are in the Smokies, and many of them are hemlocks. If you have any chance to go see them this year, do it. You may be one of the last generations to do so.