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One Man's Mission to Save our Region's Trees
I've long had a pessimistic view about the hemlocks of our southern Appalachian mountains.
Every year our slopes reveal more new patches of ghostly white amid the beautiful canvas of green — the result of the clustered skeletons of the dead evergreen giants.
Because they were taken from us in the early 20th century by blight, I was never able to experience the grandeur of a chestnut forest among our mountains.
Due to the infiltration of the parasitic hemlock wooly adelgid that has already led to the death of hundreds of thousands of our region's hemlocks, it has long been my assumption that future generations would never be able to experience the majesty of towering hemlock groves that so pleasantly shade our hollows.
That was until I met Patrick Horan.
"In 100 years, there will still be hemlocks," Horan said. That is, of course, if he has anything to do with it. Considering that I feared there might not be any hemlocks left in 10 years, he certainly had my interest — and my hopes.
I became acquainted with Horan, of Sapphire, as a landowner who bestowed a 122-acre conservation easement on his western Transylvania County property through Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.
Horan's conservation easement goes a long way to conserve what we hold dear in mountain land in our region. It protects water quality on a tributary of the Whitewater River — including a picturesque waterfall known locally as Tumbling Fun Falls — provides safe harbor for several rare plants and animals, and its adjacency to the Nantahala National Forest extends a corridor of preserved land along the scenic Blue Ridge Escarpment.
But the easement reveals only a small facet of Horan's deep commitment to preserving the natural treasures of Western North Carolina. Among many conservation values on Horan's property, it's also home to hemlocks. While not rare, there is something out of the ordinary about these trees on Horan's land: They're healthy. To understand why, I discovered the story of one man's mission to save an entire region's population of trees.
Horan has loved trees and the solitude of the forest his entire life. So it should come as no surprise that he has spent the better part of the past decade trying to save them. Horan and his wife, Noel, were lured to the mountains of North Carolina after he retired as a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia.
In 2004, he became alarmed that many hemlock trees on his property were swiftly dying as a result of the HWA. HWA is a parasitic insect that defoliates hemlock trees, ultimately leading to their death. The HWA infestation has swiftly decimated hemlocks among our southern Appalachian forests. In fact, research suggests that the region's hemlock population could face total mortality in less than 10 years.
After fervently researching the origins of the HWA epidemic, Horan became interested in predator beetles — which utilize the HWA as food — as a method of controlling the parasite.
"I had to get me some beetles," Horan said, after he realized the impact they might have on helping trees in our region. Twice he flew to the Pacific Northwest to find native western predator beetles and bring them back to North Carolina. It was the first pilgrimage of many to come that revealed his newfound passion for preserving hemlocks.
However, Horan's experimentation with the beetles he brought back showed limited success on improving the health of his hemlocks.
For many years, the biology of the HWA epidemic wasn't fully understood. Horan studied the origin of HWA in the eastern U.S., learning that it first arrived in Richmond, Va., in the 1950s via horticultural trade with Japan. The Japanese HWA accompanied the trees as an unwanted hitchhiker.
His interest turned to predator beetles from Japan.
"It just made sense," said Horan about pursuing beetles in Asia. Because the HWA affecting our region is from Japan, Horan figured that predator beetles from Japan were those most likely to control HWA here in the Southeast.
While research on American HWA has focused on dozens of species of predator beetles from many regions, Horan became most intrigued by Japan's Sasi beetle (Sasajiscymnus tsugae). He learned that hemlocks in Japan have a similar lack of resistance to HWA as our own hemlocks in the Southeast, yet Japan's trees remain healthy as a result of the presence of the predator Sasi beetle.
Horan began his own local research on hemlocks using the Sasi beetle. He ordered beetles — which can be easily raised in a lab — and released them among the dying trees on his own property. Within a year, his hemlocks began putting on new growth and appeared to be making a recovery. Soon, instead of facing eminent death, Horan's hemlocks were once again flourishing.
Soon Horan became a regional expert on private HWA biological control efforts, even supporting a laboratory that raised and sold the Sasi beetles to private landowners. Armed with predator beetles, he set out to save Western North Carolina's hemlocks.
"In beetle season, he's just never here. He's always out crawling around in the woods, finding hemlocks that need help," his wife, Noel, said.
Now hired by private landowners, Horan releases beetles to control HWA across our region.
The beetles have shown the potential to dramatically improve the health of hemlocks in wide areas surrounding the releases. He has administered the release of beetles on many of CMLC's conservation properties in Transylvania County, including Camp Deep Woods, Mountains and Meadows at Turkeypen and Rockbrook Camp, as well as the 600-acre Florence Nature Preserve in Henderson County.
Friends of DuPont Forest has also hired Horan to release beetles on private lands adjacent to the State Recreational Forest in hopes that the parasite's spread can be slowed.
Acting as a one-man not-for-profit, Horan reinvests his earnings from these private releases toward the purchase of more beetles — which he then deploys among local woodlands. He is especially proud of the visibly dramatic turnaround of health among Brevard's once-suffering hemlock population.
Altogether, Horan has released more than 75,000 Sasi beetles in an effort to save our region's hemlock trees. While our hemlocks still face an uphill battle against the HWA, Horan's crusade is evidence that just one dedicated person can make a difference in protecting Western North Carolina's natural treasures.
You can learn more about Horan's efforts to save our hemlock trees and his work with Sasi beetles at www.savinghemlocks.org.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.