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It’s in your nature: Our embattled forests

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    The north slope of Pohopoco Mountain, below Beltzville Dam best exemplifies the tremendous loss of hemlock trees due to the woolly adelgid. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    On a rainy June hike I happily discovered a few resilient chestnut saplings whose leaves are shown here.

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    Carbon County residents circa 1900 would find the forest floor covered with the “spiny” husks of the American chestnut. This hull fell from a chestnut sapling in Penn Forest Township, giving me hope that some chestnuts are now living long enough to reproduce.

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    Clay-colored patches on a white ash trunk signal its all-too-soon demise.

Published July 20. 2019 06:12AM

No one alive today had the opportunity to see the beautiful, stately American chestnut trees that dominated our local and much of Pennsylvania’s forests. Chestnut blight introduced into Pennsylvania around 1905 quickly spread, and soon all the mature chestnut trees had been lost.

American chestnut was an important lumber tree (barn sheathing and beams, etc.) and the abundant chestnuts on the forest floor were collected for animal feed. Of course, Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song” indicated the importance of chestnuts as a fall food source for many people as well.

My mother grew up on a farm along the Blue Mountain in the edge of Carbon County near Andreas. She recalled times when in the mid to late ’30s she would take the horse and drag back the dead chestnut trunks to be cut on the buck saw for their winter heat. She remembered nearly half the forest’s trees were dead from the blight.

Today, only a scattering of young chestnuts sprout up from the original roots of the dead giants. Sometimes they may reach a trunk diameter of about 2 inches before the blight kills them. We can hope that some of the few surviving shoots will someday become resistant to the blight and our successors on this earth will see these important forest monarchs again.

Eastern hemlocks are also imperiled. They are being devastated by the introduced hemlock woolly adelgid. It is a tiny insect (aphid-like) that attaches to the base of the hemlock needle, sucking fluids through a needle and killing them. Most infested hemlocks die within three years. The needle die-off generally occurs on the lower branches first before moving up the remainder of the trunk. Just as the gypsy moth, the adelgid (first found in Pennsylvania in 1973) has no natural enemies, and our native trees unfortunately show no resistance like the forest trees where this originated in Asia.

As a youngster in the early 1960s, my dad while rabbit hunting used me as his hound to “kick around” the hemlock limbs that reached all the way to the forest floor to chase the rabbits hiding there. I can’t remember where I’ve seen a completely leaved mature hemlock recently.

Now, if enough of our forest resources weren’t in distress, the emerald ash borer is taking its toll. Our white ash trees are facing a terrible onslaught and are losing the battle. The emerald ash borer lays its eggs just under the bark and the larvae tunnel under the bark, eventually killing the tree. This insect has spread throughout the state since first being identified here in 2007. Estimates now indicate that more than 60 million ash trees have been killed.

Everywhere I walk or drive, I see dead ash trees or those exhibiting the telltale dieback. I’m sure you have seen them. They now join the dead white and chestnut oaks so hard-hit by the gypsy moth caterpillars.

Palmerton’s Columbia Avenue is lined with beautiful white ash trees, and I’m seeing dead and dying trees there. Imagine the expense to remove them and the dangers to homes, cars, people and property if not removed.

How will these dying trees affect wildlife? The Allegheny wood rat, feeding almost entirely on chestnuts is almost extirpated. How about red squirrels that thrive in the hemlock forests or the deer, turkey and grouse that once sought shelter in the dense hemlock stands. Ash seeds provided much sustenance to many birds and mammals. What will the total effects be? Time will tell how things will adapt to our “disappearing forest trees.”

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: The _______ is not native to Pennsylvania. A. house mouse, B. house finch, C. mockingbird, D. Norway rat, E. all of these.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: There are about 1,000 species of rhododendrons in the world.

Contact Barry Reed at breed71@gmail.com.

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