Buncombe Commissioners approve hemlock preservation project

Hemlock trees are disappearing from the Appalachian Mountains due to the non-native invasive species, the hemlock wooly adelgid. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners agreed unanimously at the May 19 meeting to move forward with a project to preserve the hemlocks from further eradication. Creative commons photo by Nicholas A. Tonelli

Environmental preservation efforts have been a recurring topic at the last few Buncombe County Board of Commissioners meetings.

Two weeks ago, commissioners approved a resolution to protect Blue Ridge Parkway viewsheds, 7-0. And at their Tuesday, May 19, meeting, commissioners unanimously approved a project to protect the region’s disappearing hemlock population.

Both the Eastern hemlock and the near-threatened Carolina hemlock, mostly found in Western North Carolina, are subject to an invasion of non-native, sap-sucking insects, which have already caused the death of millions of hemlocks in the Appalachians.

After speaking with local environmental organization MountainTrue, Commissioner Brownie Newman brought the preservation project to the board and gave a presentation on the hemlock’s battle with the invasive insect, the wooly adelgid.

Some time in the last 15 or so years, Newman explained, the wooly adelgid was unintentionally introduced the the East Coast, and, ever since, the invasive insects have been sucking the life out of the native hemlock species — leaving dry, bare, skeletonlike silhouettes poking out over an otherwise lush landscape.

The hemlock population faces extinction in as little as 20 years, Newman continued, if the adelgid population isn’t drastically reduced.

During public comment, many residents advocated for chemical treatment of the hemlocks.

But when MountainTrue biologist Josh Kelly approached the podium, he explained that, while chemical treatment is highly effective at ensuring an individual tree’s survival, it won’t stop the mass-eradication of hemlocks across the region. When talking about an entire population, he said, something bigger needs to be done.

And that’s where the Lari beetles come in.

Laricobius nigrinus beetles, “Lari” for short, are the natural predators of the wooly adelgid, Newman explained. Found naturally in the American Pacific Northwest — along with masses of thriving hemlock groves, the two insects coexist while creating a balanced ecosystem. Kelly said such beetles may be “the future” of our local hemlock preservation.

While chemical treatment is still an effective method of preserving a single tree, he continued, the only way to loosen the adelgid’s grip on the entire forest is with its natural predator.

The proposed solution, which gained enthusiastic approval from most commissioners, is to allocate $25,000 from the county’s 2016 budget to purchase 5,000 Lari beetles, introducing them into the Buncombe County wilderness.

Newman explained that this project will be a multiyear effort, establishing preservation areas for the dwindling Carolina hemlocks and prioritizing the stability of the last remaining old-growth groves. The changes will not happen overnight, he said, but reducing the adelgid’s free reign over the Appalachians is a start.

The environmental preservation project was the only topic that came to a vote at the May 19 meeting, passing 7-0.

Commissioners also heard four budget requests and County Manager Wanda Greene‘s proposed budget for the 2016 fiscal year, which will be discussed further after a public hearing at the June 2 regular meeting.

Greene zipped through the budget proposal, explaining that the requests from earlier in the evening — from Buncombe County Schools, Asheville City Schools, A-B Tech and District Attorney Todd Williams — are, of course, not reflected in the presentation. County staff will discuss these requests and update the budget, if necessary, to echo the collective suggestions from the board.

For a play-by-play look at the entire Buncombe County Board of Commissioner’s meeting, in short 140-character bursts, here’s a text-speak account via Twitter:


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About Hayley Benton
Current freelance journalist and artist. Former culture/entertainment reporter at the Asheville Citizen-Times and former news reporter at Mountain Xpress. Also a coffee drinker, bad photographer, teller of stupid jokes and maker-upper of words. I can be reached at hayleyebenton [at] gmail.com. Follow me @HayleyTweeet

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