At first glance, the white specks dotting the Flight 93 crash site’s famed hemlock trees give a soft white, welcoming touch.
The tiny puffs – actually egg sacs – almost look like snow, said Keith Newlin, National Park Service deputy superintendent for the western region that manages the Flight 93 National Memorial.
The trouble is, those white specks are also the most visible sign an invasive insect is slowly killing the hallowed ground’s hemlock grove – an issue the park service and its partners are working to battle through a mix of treatment efforts getting underway this month, park officials said.
“Right now, the trees are still fairly healthy. But we’ve got to knock these buggers back,” Newlin said.
The woolly adelgid, or HWA insects, feed on hemlock needle sap, robbing the trees of nutrients.
The needles then turn gray and die, leaving the tree itself to starve to death, often three to five years after the initial infestation, according to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ website.
Since first discovering the issue in the summer of 2012, the Park Service has spent more than a year working with local contractors and the Forest Service to craft a safe, aesthetically friendly attack plan to eliminate the insects, he added.
The grove is perhaps the most sacred piece of the Flight 93 property. When the United Airlines plane fell from the sky on Sept. 11, 2001, the hemlock trees absorbed much of the impact and crash remains, investigators said at the time.
Newlin said another invasive bug has proven to be one of the most effective ways to kill off the HWA insects, but park officials are leery about the move.
It would bring a beetle into the area that is not native to Somerset County, and with it unknown, long-term impacts, he said.
“We’re not ready to take that jump yet,” he said.
Instead, a mix of bark spraying, soil tablets and other efforts will be used at different times of the year to drive out the HWA bugs, park Superintendent Jeff Reinbold said.
“We hope that these treatment methods will protect the hemlock trees and help us preserve the crash scene,” he added.
The treatment plan will continue for the next three years, Newlin said.
David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tddavidhurst.