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Conserving our Appalachian Forests

Marty Olsen • Jul 21, 2019 at 4:45 AM

A couple of weeks ago I was hiking on the Appalachian farm where my mother was born in 1935 and before then my grandfather was born in 1911. At the edge of a meadow, I noticed an elm tree. American elms have been struggling against Dutch elm disease since the 1920s and are now uncommon.

In the past, they were large beautiful trees- think of all the elm streets named in their honor. This tree was not large; it was only about 4 inches in diameter. It seems this is how elm trees have adapted — they live shorter life spans and rarely become large trees, but some do live long enough to make seeds and keep the species alive.

Our Appalachian forests are a great resource. They are a huge carbon sink, pulling the carbon out of the air that has been linked to global warming. The large numbers of plant and animal species found in Appalachian forests give our area unusual biodiversity; this brings tourists and tourist dollars into East Tennessee to enhance our local economy. Very importantly, being around forests makes us healthier. Spending time around trees lowers stress and blood pressure. Regional leaders have recognized the value of trees; Johnson City, Kingsport, and Bristol have all been designated as Tree City USA communities.

But our forests are threatened. One of the biggest threats is invasive pests from other continents. A famous invasive pest was the chestnut blight first described about 100 years ago. It pushed the American chestnut tree to the verge of extinction. After that was Dutch Elm Disease. Now hemlock trees are dying from hemlock woolly adelgid infestation, Ash trees are dying from the emerald ash borer and Fraser firs are threatened by the Balsam woolly adelgid. Threats to oak trees, dogwood trees and others lurk in the future.

Each tree species plays its role in a healthy forest. Hemlock trees shade mountain streams where trout spawn. Ash leaves fall into ponds where they are a favored food for tadpoles. As these trees die out, populations of trout and frogs will be affected as well.

What can we do? We can certainly support groups like the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s efforts to treat uninfected ash trees and keep the species alive until a more permanent solution can be found. Similar efforts to preserve hemlock trees are also worthy of commendation. Property owners can treat the hemlock, ash and Fraser firs on their property to preserve individual trees. Homeowners can plant native trees, and even consider some of the resistant varieties of elm trees. When you go camping, never transport firewood, since pests may be transported on the logs.

And be sure to take a walk in the woods with a friend. Appreciate our local beauty.

I recently took a hike with a friend from the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoe Club. This organization does a lot of trail maintenance in the region. He wanted to show me something special. After we had hiked for a while, he pointed them out. Dozens of little American chestnut trees. Some were sprouting from stumps; since the roots lived after the trunk was killed by the chestnut blight, the roots were able to re-sprout.

Other saplings were very small and by themselves, so were obviously the product of seeds. After a little while, we found the mother tree — the trunk was only about 5-inches across, but it was 25-feet tall. It was small by the standards of the chestnuts of old, but large enough to produce chestnuts. This reminded me of the elm trees’ adaptation I'd seen before. If protected for a few centuries, perhaps these chestnut trees’ descendants will figure out how to live with the blight and grow tall again. 

We are fortunate to live in a beautiful area. All most of us need to do to appreciate trees is to look out our windows. Forests are resilient, but they can’t be taken for granted. We need to conserve this valuable resource for our region.

Dr. Marty Olsen is an obstetrics and gynecology physician in Johnson City. He has interests in international medicine and in confronting the opioid epidemic.

 

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