Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
April 28, 2020

Catskill Forests, Trees, Hemlocks

Catskill Forests, Trees, Hemlocks
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Forest historian Michael Kudish talks trees and forest composition in the Stony Clove, bridging Ulster and Greene Counties. Then, a conversation with forest entomologist Mark Whitmore, on an invasive threat to our Catskill hemlocks. 

Thanks to our sponsors, Greene County Soil & Water; and the Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway

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Welcome to cats cast, a biweekly podcast delivering interviews, arts, culture and history from New York's Catskill Mountains. In this episode, we speak with forest historian Michael Kurdish about Catskills trees and forests following route 214, between green and Ulster counties. Then a phone call with forest entomologist Mark Whitmore on the latest threat to our hemlocks. This episode is sponsored by the Greene County watershed Assistance Program, helping the public navigate the maze of challenges and opportunities that exist living and working in the New York City watershed. It facilitates local, state, city and federal programs and works in partnership with municipal leaders, residents, agencies and organizations serving the mountain top region of Greene County. For more information, call 518-589-6871 or visit gcswcd.com. My name is Mike Kurdish, I did my doctoral dissertation on the vegetational history of the cat's kowhai peaks. I've been studying the Catskills ever since I was teaching up at Paul Smith's college in the Adirondacks for 34 years. And then when I retired, so to speak, I moved down here so I could continue my Catskills forest history studies full time. As a recreational hiker. Before I was a grad student, I would find that some of the summit's had spruce, without first had fur without spruce, some had spruce, and for some had neither. Some had all hardwoods and those that are all hardwood, some had oak, some did not some add sugar maple, some did not. Some had hemlock, some did not. And I thought that was a tremendous puzzle to try to solve. Because in the Adirondacks, in the mountains of northern New England, the vegetation or the forest or an almost all the summit's of similar elevations is very similar. And in the Catskills, unless you climb to the top of a mountain, there's no way to predict a lot you're gonna find up there. So that set me off. And it took me something like 30 some ideas to do it up to about 1995, I could only go back 300 years, because that's as old as the trees were. And that's as old as the written records were. But starting in the mid 90s, I found out that I could get fossil plants out of peat, and have them radiocarbon dated. And that opened up a whole new world. From 300 years, I went back 15,000 most of the trees moved in from what is now Pennsylvania, New Jersey, at the end of the Ice Age. So a lot of that early migration from 14 1312 2000 years ago, will explain a lot but not everything. Another reason major reason for the forest is the effect of Native Americans and the forest fires and what they burned and what they didn't. And that would tell you whether you have an oak forest, if they burned, or another an oak forest if they did not burn. And then there are other factors, tree species among themselves, have relationships, just like people among themselves have relationships. They're battling it out. They're fighting it out. They're choosing their sights. It's not an obvious thing to see, but it's going on all the time in the woods. And it's how different trees relate to other trees and plants determines a lot how much water they need, how much light how much space to the devil's kitchen, Devil's path. You have a devil's Tombstone, which is a huge glacial erratic Boulder. And of course you have the devil's acre up on the southwest shoulder of Hunter. I think it might go back to the 18th century, not only the Dutch, but the early settlers, because of the rough terrain, and all the boulders and the cliffs. And maybe they had fears of the terrain and the thick forest and the wild animals. And they thought that maybe the devil was busy in that part of the Catskills. Set the cliffs on both sides is so steep and so high that you need experienced rock climbers to get up and down then with special equipment. So the hikers in order to get up and down. Use the devil's path unless they bushwhacking and the devil's path was built to there in the 30s. It was built in installments It was not built end to end at once. In fact, the most recent section of the devil's path over westco mountain was built in the early to mid 70s because I remember having to bushwhack up West Hill. There was no trail you were on your own and the campground was even earlier. The K brown came in in the 20s in the 1920s automobiles and highways became paved, more plentiful, more accessible. And people they would bring all their gear in the car and, and drive up to the Catskills and camp. So you have the campgrounds you have the hiking trails. And of course you have up on hunter mountain the fire tower. That's a big tourist attraction up there. The shortest way up is the Becker hollow trail. And the trail head there is with a highway sub 2000 feet, and that will bring one up to hunter mountain the shortest distance. It's quite steep. What's unusual about the backer trail is it follows one of Edwards bark roads up to about the 3000 foot level and above that the road ends and then it's a foot trail. What's a bark road you ask? Curtis explains that in the early 19th century, hemlock bark was used in abundance for tanning leather. This early industry shaped today's Catskill forest. hemlocks were cut for their bark by the tanning industry. The tanning industry was a leather production industry primarily in the Catskills for soul leather. So le for shoes. A lot of the Catskills leather went to civil war military personnel. They came in about 1800 really began to get underway about 1817 1820 after the Civil War began to decline, the last one closed I think about 19 seven. The hides were brought in primarily from Central and South America by boat came up the Hudson estuary to ports such as Kingston and Catskill, and then were hauled in by wagons with teams of oxen and horses, to the tanneries. hemlock bark provided the tannins, which was the major ingredient in the tanneries, and some of them were very large and famous, like the New York tannery, which is Edwards in hunter and the Pratt tannery in prattville the way tannery and big Indian was the big one. The Simpson in the Snyder tanneries and finish area woodland Valley. Some of them were very large, very famous ran for decades. hemlocks are cyclical. They live 250 300 years, you get a hemlock stand that's over about 300 years old. And if it's not regenerating, it's going to die out replaced by hardwoods. And then maybe centuries of millennia later, hemlocks will come back in again, the whole cycle starts over again. If they barked, a hemlock Grove that was mature and old and beginning to die out, the chances are that hemlock Grove would not be reproducing you'd have no hemlocks there today. Edwards built a bark road up the north side of Stoney clove notch in the 1840s. That was the first road and they worked both sides of the notch that is they build backroads up both sides, they went up the hunters side on the west, they barked up the east side on plateau mountain. In fact, if you take the devil's path going up from the campground that Devil's paths hiking trail built in the 1930s follows a bark road over 3000 feet. Leather tanning wasn't the only forest industry in the Stoney clove hardwoods were cut, and bluestone was quarried. There was a large furniture wood products industry in the Stoney clove alley between Edgewood and lanesville. And this was before railroad. So the only way they could get out of it would be going down the road through Chester and into Phoenicia in Ulster County, but there must have been a good half a dozen bills. Most of the furniture was made from hardwood, yellow bread sugar maple, beech, black cherry red maple, spruce was used more for construction type buildings and such in lumber. spruce could also be used for other specialty items like piano sounding boards and things like that. There's an old row that goes up south to the notch on the plateau side, and I followed it up. I assumed it was a lagging road which had had been used more recently, and of all things that led me to a blue stone quarry. And this is south of the campground and on the east side, and I had to climb up something like five or 600 feet above the valley. bluestone is a blue colored sandstone, which is very popular in the late 19th century for building curbs, sidewalks, some buildings, and it was fairly easy to split. It was abundant. It's just installing cloth. I know that just one but it was a big industry. There are other places when you get over to Platt clove and around Phoenicia, where there were dozens My name is Mark Whitmore, forest entomologist in the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University. And I've been studying the hemlock woolly adelgid, its impact on hemlock trees and the potential for biological control of this pest invasive non native pest in New York and actually throughout the East Coast. My cooter spoke to us about the the bark peelers who you know, these men in the 1800s, who were employed by the tanning industry to harvest the hemlocks in the Catskills. Today, our remaining hemlock stands face another threat, which is the woolly adelgid. So can you explain what that is and how it got here? The hemlock woolly adelgid is a tiny aphid like thing. It's like a teeny tiny beach ball about a millimeter in diameter with mouthparts. That it inserts into the twig tissue of hemlock trees, not the needles but the twigs. It's actually an interesting insect is we've identified five separate populations. It's native to Eastern Asia, there's two populations, distinct populations in China to in Japan. And it turns out that the Pacific Northwest has a distinct biotyper population of the hemlock woolly adelgid, that is native. So on the East Coast, the story as far as we can figure it out. And my colleague, Nathan Havel, with the Forest Service has done a lot of genetic work and determined that the population that we have established on the East Coast came from southern Japan, the probably arrived in the early 1900s. And as a part of a shipment of nursery stock to an arboretum in the Richmond, Virginia area, but it was first really noticed has a problem in the mid to late 50s. In the Richmond, Virginia area. And alarm was raised when they got into the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in the 70s. And since that time, it's moved down throughout the distribution of Eastern hemlock down into Georgia, and all up the eastern seaboard all the way up to Nova Scotia right now. It got into the New York area in the mid 80s, first detected in the southern Hudson Valley. And it's been spreading not rapidly, but it's been spreading steadily and northward on the Hudson Valley and into the Catskills. Southern Catskills as well as in the western part of the state and the Finger Lakes where I live all the way out to the Buffalo area. But it's spotty. It gets around I think, through the movement of nursery stock, but also through wind carrying it or perhaps bird vectors. Distribution currently is primarily in the Hudson Valley where there's a lot of mortality, but in the Catskills it's gotten into the rondout, the neversink area where mortality is beginning to mount. There's some places where I've seen it interesting trees for perhaps upwards of 20 years. And that's a an interesting situation. Why do some areas succumb to the infestation more rapidly than others. And I think that that's a function of site quality, where you have great soils and very healthy trees, they can sustain the impact of feeding of this insect longer than trees that are on more stressed soils. So right now in the Catskills, we're facing areas where the trees are currently dying in the south, but it's also beginning to infest areas further inland and at higher elevations. With the lighter, warmer winters, I expect to see the Adelgid moving much more rapidly. And indeed, we've seen that in a couple of cases. How do we know if the hemlocks on our properties or surrounding lands are are affected by it? The first thing you do is you go to our website, which is NYS hemlock initiative dot info. And we have tons of information on there on how to identify it, and what your options are when you get it on the property. But basically, it's it's a little tiny, black beach ball with with mouthparts to go into the twig but what it produces to protect itself is I A white woolly mask, hence the name hemlock woolly adelgid. And these white woolly hairs Actually, it's a wax produced on the dorsal surface of the body are very apparent, beginning perhaps, and December and January because the interesting thing as this insect grows in the winter time, starts growing in and say October are gradually getting larger and larger and growing through May at which time it goes into a resting stage. And you'll say, Well, what, what's going on with this an insect growing in wintertime? Well, first of all, it's a great strategy if you want to avoid predation, because when are all the predators out there? Looking for something to eat? In the summertime when it's warmer, the Adelgid has adapted its lifestyle on the hemlock twigs. And I think you say, well, in the winter time, it's you know, it's cold blooded thing, how can it grow with all these cold temperatures, and you have to look at the microsite, the microclimate on the needles of the tree. And so it's might not be the ambient temperature out there, which can be quite cold. But when you have sunshine, hitting on those dark needles, it actually heats them up to the point that they'll just can grow very easily. So that's one of the reasons it's been such a successful insect. The other is that it's all they're all females. And so basically, all you need is one successful female to establish kind of whole population can explode from that point in the regions of the world where they are naturally supposed to be, I guess, China, Japan, the Northwest, what kind of natural predators are there to keep them in check that we don't have here? that's a that's a really good question. And it's something that we've been considering for a long time. When we're thinking about developing management tactics for the hemlock woolly adelgid, you got to consider what are the factors that limit population growth in the areas where there are native, when the areas where they're native, there's been an evolution over time of natural enemies, and perhaps host resistance. The other thing that can impact the population would be a biotic factors like cold temperatures we find in New York, that cold temperatures do impact the populations dramatically. But the thing that's always astounded us is that the populations seem to pop right back, and much more rapidly than we would normally consider possible. And that's all related to the second generation of the Adelgid. If you kill a lot of the first generation, it leaves more room for the second generation to move in and be more productive. And so the reproductive success of the second generation is enhanced by mortality in the first generation. So it's it's a double whammy. And the areas where the hemlock woolly adelgid is native. There actually is a very highly developed predator complex. And so we've been working I've been working primarily in the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up, and I know the areas and and I can find the Adelgid. And in these areas, there are basically three predators that are the most numerous. That's a little beetle called lyric odious and dryness, which is in the family diridon today, and there are two flies on the genus of the copus cukup has been a perda and the Copa sargento call us and they're in the cameo de family. And so these three predators, it's just amazing how abundant they can get with the hemlock woolly adelgid, out west. And so one of the questions in our mind was, you know, what is the impact of these predators? You know, is it is it the predation? Or is it perhaps host tree resistance that we, you know, that they keep the populations of intelligence from developing into a harmful pest. And actually, I grew up I grew up out west, and I never learned about the hemlock woolly adelgid. So I moved back east to work at Cornell. Are there any bio controls that are being used in the Catskills to control the population? Yeah, so we've been working with the predators of the hemlock woolly adelgid from the Pacific Northwest, in New York, for the past 15 years. Basically, we first started working with the beetle there a cobia, Snake rhiness. We call it Larry for short. And we started releasing that in pretty low numbers. They're hard to get numbers to release. That's the real problem. And that's a whole nother story. Growing bugs in the lab you think might be easy, but it's not. So we started releasing those 2003 repeatedly at some locations and just one set others. I think we have up to 19 locations throughout the state now. And we've been watching the growth of this predator. And it's been nowhere near as good as in the South and North Carolina, and establishes it, it spreads. And recent work shows that it's very effective at eating the first generation of the Adelgid. And we are finding it had spread 30 miles from its original point of introduction. But here in New York, we've found the sites where it's become established and produced 12 generations that just hasn't spread and the populations haven't grown in the north, where we have these temperature events that kill a large portion of the population that actually inhibits the population growth of the predator. And so going back to the drawing board, some of my colleagues outwest Darrell Ross and Kimberly Whalen, and a graduate student started looking at the flies the the copas flies, and so I've been working with that insect bringing foliage back and rearing out the insects and the quarantine facility here at Cornell. So we have fliers to release. And we've released at a number of locations in the Catskills in the neversink rondout area hoping we can save some of those trees that are so heavily impacted. But also in areas like this good hairy reservoir where the populations are just building. And we know that we have establishment of these flies we've seen them reproduce successfully on the eastern Adelgid, but we have yet to find them definitively overwintering. The big question in my mind is, you know, are we barking up the right tree? Looking at this copus this silver fly? It actually feeds on the second generation of the Adelgid. So this is the generation that takes over after that first generation. The wonderful thing is that just recently, we found that indeed, the pupi of the low copus survive our winters. So that gives us the hope that indeed, this insect will survive. There's a lot of questions that need to be answered. And unfortunately, we can't go back West and collect more insects this spring. So we're sort of rather in a holding point right now, I hope that we get through this. So we can get back out there again, next spring and resume our work with this insect because that because of the pandemic that we're facing as humans, he Yes, you got it. Human moderated research. So I don't have the ability to rear silver flies on a good day. But I do have a nice stand of hemlocks on my property, what can I do? Or what can the average homeowner or property owner do to save the trees? Well, that's a really good question. And one that I think really the answer needs to get out there. Basically, the biological control is not going to get out there and save the trees in the time period. That is necessary, because they can succumb very rapidly to the Adelgid, I can't predict when the biological control will be successful. I'm hoping that it will. And I think that, you know, that's the long term answer. If we can establish the bio control for the long term. Hopefully, we'll have a situation very much like where it's native in the Pacific Northwest, where we have populations that are present, but are kept from being damaging by the natural enemies by the predators. In the meantime, we're very fortunate in New York State to have tools at our disposal, that will keep the trees alive for the short term. And that's the use of insecticide treatments. I think it's really important that people realize this doesn't mean you're getting in a big bomber and you know, flooding the air with with these toxic chemicals. That's the last thing I would ever advocate that attack. That's why I got into the business of biological control. I was really pissed off at the use of DDT and whatever and the good old days, the use of insecticide treatments on hemlocks is actually very focused and only goes on to the hemlock trees. It's the application to the bark of the tree itself so it doesn't even get into the soil. And it gets into the tree rapidly. takes down the the Adelgid population and it allows the tree to To recover, put out new foliage. And the really great thing is that with one application, we can get reduction of Adelgid populations for five years or more, if you consider the cost over that five to seven year period of time, it's actually minimal. And the investment, I think, when you're talking about trees that are hundreds of years old, and many instances, the investment is well worth it. Is there a resource for finding licensed arborist to can perform that treatment? Yes, the first thing I would do is go to our website, and why is hemlock initiative dot info and look at the chemical treatment, the insecticide treatment section, there are lots of resources there. And you know, there's a lot of people that have questions about using insecticides, and I'm one of them. And so we actually have dragged up all the recent literature surrounding the efficacy as well as the environmental impacts of using the insistent act insecticides. As a part of our website, this section, we also have instructions on how to apply the insecticides. And so you can contact any arborist or applicator that's licensed to treat trees, and ask them how they would do it. And if they don't tell you what you find on our website, I would question their experience and their capacity to actually pull off the job. There's a way to do it, there's a way to do it, right. And if you contact somebody, and they don't know how to do it, right, don't hire Can you just talk about the importance of hemlocks in general in this region and what the Catskills would be like, if we didn't have them? Cheers. I can't imagine that the Catskills would be like without the hemlocks, really. I've been doing this for 40 years. And one of the most common reactions is like, oh, my goodness, I mean, they're gone. Now. With settled sign, you just don't know what you got until it's gone. And it's it really is true, you know, the decline of the hemlocks is gradual, it isn't dramatic. But once they're gone, all of a sudden, you realize that things have changed. hemlocks are known ecologically as a foundation species, which basically translates to, they basically provide an environment which is essential for the survival of the number of animals, plants, whatever, that depend on them to provide that habitat. And I consider it this way, if you have an ash tree, which is topical these days, and all the ash trees in your hardwood forests die, will you have left, functionally a hardwood forest, whereas if you have a hemlock forest and all the hemlocks die, what do you have? Mother, you have a situation where you're going to have a hardwood forest hammocks are gone, and the whole things the whole game is going to change. This is really important, I think, in the Catskills. And in the Adirondacks as well, where hemlocks are an important part of the forest and they sort of like form islands for these other species to survive in. And I don't know I you know, there's just something about Mr. X in my mind that touches pulls at my heartstrings. I like to think of them as the Labrador puppy dog, tree world. And there's just some about it. I can't describe it, but I just, I love those trees. Considering all the data and all the research you've been doing throughout your career. Are you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future of hemlocks in the Catskills? Oh, that's a really good question. I you know, because this can be a really depressing profession. And you think about it. Now, look at all the ash trees that are dying now. It's like, I can't believe what's happening with these invasive species. They're just changing the changing the face of the earth. And I've been doing this a long time. And I really, you know, it's like, if I got depressed, I would, you know, crawl up in a ball and not do anything. And I've gotten over that I do have hope. If you don't have hope, what do you have? And so that's what drives me the hope that someday we will be successful. And I've seen that recently. It was a an amazing event to find that indeed, the silver flies can overwinter that was something that we've been looking for, for a number of years now. And so it gives me hope that the silver flies in combination with our COVID for the long term, they will help save the trees, but in the short term, I think we really need to be responsible about maintaining the hemlock resource that we have in place and there's many parks in areas where actually the trees have been treated like at minnewaska State Park, and a number of the state parks out here and the Finger Lakes area as well. where basically, if we hadn't treated those trees, they'd be dead right now and the aesthetic nature of these parks, it would be forever changed. And so I'm really glad that the state has stepped up and is really taking this the hemlock resource seriously and keeping it alive, hopefully until we can really implement the biological control for the long term. Original Music by Josh Roy brown cats cast is a production of silver hollow audio. Please don't forget to subscribe, and we'll see you again in two weeks. 

Transcribed by https://otter.ai