A Duke Energy-funded project to treat Eastern hemlocks in The Jocassee Gorges is saving hemlocks along the Coon Branch Trail,one tree at a time.
Text and photos by Greg Lucas
Will Blozan and his band of forestry warriors gather up their gear and begin pouring liquid insecticide in various jugs as they prepare to head into the forest and do battle with the hemlock woolly adelgid, which has decimated Eastern hemlock trees in the Southern Appalachians. Their mission today: to save the hemlocks that grow along the Whitewater River in northern Oconee County’s Coon Branch Natural Area. Duke Energy is funding the hemlock treatment at Coon Branch today, just as it did in 2008 and in 2011. Without the treatments, most, if not all, of these hemlocks would have succumbed to the hemlock woolly adelgid by now.
Blozan and Jason Childs own a company called Appalachian Arborists, based in Asheville, which specializes in treating hemlocks to help them resist hemlock woolly adelgids. They, along with co-workers Jackie Failla and Stephen Elsen, will be treating the trees by soil injection with insecticides that are taken up by the trees’ vascular systems, killing the adelgids. Duke Energy has spent a total of about $20,000 in the past decade to help keep the Eastern hemlocks along the Coon Branch Natural Area Trail alive. The Coon Branch Trail is a spur of the Foothills Trail (foothillstrail.org), a 77-mile trail between Oconee and Table Rock state parks. Coon Branch Natural Area, accessed through Duke Energy’s Bad Creek Hydro Project, is owned by Duke Energy and is part of the Jocassee Gorges lands that Duke Energy voluntarily placed under conservation easement.
After getting a safety briefing from Allan Boggs, Duke Energy’s civil and regulatory supervisor, we head into the forest toward the Whitewater River and Coon Branch Natural Area. Also along for the adventure is Jessie Egan, a Clemson University student who is a wildlife intern for the summer with SCDNR. In addition to treating hemlocks, Will wants to see if a towering white pine that he measured seven years ago at 148 feet is still alive. Will is the president of the Native Tree Society and a tree climber extraordinaire. Will and Jackie traipse through thick underbrush to take a closer look at a massive leaning white pine tree. It’s the tall one that Will climbed in 2011, and, unfortunately, it’s now dead. Drought stress may have killed it, Will says, because white pines can live up to 450 years.
Afterwards, we walk to the end of the one-mile trail. Here, next to the Whitewater River, is the skeleton of an enormous tree known locally as the De Soto Hemlock, so named because due to its 400-year age (confirmed by coring) it would have been alive during the travels of the famous Spanish explorer. Trying to save the De Soto Hemlock 10 years ago is what jump-started Duke Energy to fund treatments all along the Coon Branch Trail. This is where the team will begin treating hemlocks, working its way along both sides of the trail, back towards the foot bridge that leads to the main stem of the Foothills Trail. As they work, the members of the team are serenaded by the music of the Whitewater River as it pours over rocky ledges before gathering itself in quiet pools beneath rhododendron and the remaining hemlocks.
Jackie moves quickly from hemlock to hemlock, delivering the insecticide imidacloprid into the ground around the trees with an injector that looks much like a larger-than-life syringe. The number of pumps from the injector around each tree is based on the tree’s diameter—the bigger the tree, the more insecticide that is delivered to it. After the pumps of insecticide are delivered, Jackie sprays a blue mark on the back of the tree to show that it’s been treated.
The hemlocks along the trail have a healthy green color. Will says the Coon Branch hemlocks look great overall, and he doesn’t notice any significant difference from when they were treated seven years ago. Coincidentally, research has shown that the optimum time between hemlock treatments is about seven years, so the Coon Branch trees are right on schedule.
If You Go:
To visit Coon Branch Natural Area, begin at the intersection of SC 130 and SC 11 (Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway), and head toward Whitewater Falls. After 10 miles, Bad Creek Hydro Project will be on the right, turn here onto Bad Creek Road. (If you travel into North Carolina, you have gone too far.) After 2.5 miles on Bad Creek Road, turn left into the Whitewater River Corridor/Foothills Trail parking lot, where you can leave your car. The physical address of Bad Creek Hydro Project is 151 Bad Creek Road, Salem, SC 29676.