The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

November 8, 2013

'Knock these buggers back' | Park service fighting to save Flight 93 trees

JOHNSTOWN — The Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville is a place of mourning, reverence and respect. It’s hard to gaze upon the Wall of Names and not be humbled by the sacrifice of the brave passengers and crew members aboard the doomed flight as they fought back against the terrorists who appeared to be determined to crash the airliner into a target in Washington, D.C., bringing even more carnage and destruction to the horrific day that was Sept. 11, 2001.

 The crash site is hallowed ground, as the plane exploded upon impact, meaning that the remains of those aboard were scattered when it hit. The hemlock grove that stands just beyond the impact zone is also believed to contain remains. It, too, is considered to be hallowed ground.

Unfortunately, those trees are now facing a threat of their own. The National Park Service announced Thursday that it has begun an aggressive treatment project in hopes of saving the hemlocks. The project, which started this week, is an effort to stop the spread of the hemlock woolly adelgid, a non-native, invasive insect that threatens the survival of the grove.

“Right now, the trees are still fairly healthy,” said Keith Newlin, the National Park Service’s deputy superintendent for the western region that manages the memorial. “But we’ve got to knock these buggers back.”

The insects feed on hemlock sap, robbing the trees of nutrients. A tree under attack by the insects will have egg sacs, which New-lin told our David Hurst look almost like snow on the underside of branches. But, soon enough, the healthy, dark green hemlock will begin to wither and perish from the effect of the insects. The needles turn gray and die within three to five years of the initial infestation, according to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The park service is fighting back against the bugs with several different treatment methods, including a combination of soil-buried tablets, soil injection, low-pressure tree injection, bark spray and horticultural oil spray, according to a national memorial press release.

There are more drastic steps that the park service can take, such as bringing in a beetle that is not native to Somerset County, but the long-term impacts of such a strategy are not yet known.

“We’re not ready to take that jump yet,” Newlin told Hurst.

That seems to be the wise decision. We desperately hope that the hemlocks, which have come to be known as “witness trees” for their proximity to the crash site, can be saved. But, as the hemlock woolly adelgid infestation shows, there can be severe consequences to introducing a non-native species to an existing habitat.

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