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October 26, 2017

Cornell Botanic Gardens Earns $68,000 Grant to Fight a Pest Deadly to ‘Vital’ Trees

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Cornell Botanic Gardens recently received a grant to stop the spread of a pest that is a death sentence to hemlock trees, a type of tree that CALS Extension Associate Mark Whitmore said is “a very vital part of the forests and ecosystem in New York.”

The $68,723 grant from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation funds the efforts of individuals including Whitmore, a forest entomologist who works with Cornell Botanic Gardens.

Todd Bittner, the director of natural areas of the Cornell Botanic Gardens, said this is the first time such a grant has been offered, due to the increasing relevance of this particular ecological issue.

Whitmore may be the perfect man for the job, as his main work involves treating hemlock forests in the area in order to prevent the spreading of the aforementioned invasive pest.

The current problem that plagues hemlock populations, Whitmore said, is hemlock woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect currently wreaking havoc on forests throughout the country. Originating from southern Japan, the pest arrived in the Finger Lakes region in 2008.

“We knew it was going to be a big problem from the get-go,” he said. “It has become a huge issue, with a lot of dead trees popping up around both Cayuga and Seneca Lake.”

However, he also noted that Cornell has taken steps in treating some trees in order to prevent mass destruction, and that without Cornell, “in Taughannock, Treman Park, Watkins Glen — there wouldn’t be hemlocks in those parks or areas if we hadn’t treated those trees.”

Whitmore also believes that immediate action, which will be encouraged by the grant, will prevent the problem from getting worse.

“[The grant] is a huge thing. It’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “And it brings light to the problem. If you don’t know that you have a problem, then you won’t do anything. But now people in the state are realizing there is an issue and are taking action.”

Bittner further emphasized the importance of the grant, adding that the preservation of hemlock trees is a top priority.

“The grant is about slowing the spreading [of the pest] and preventing the degradation of local areas,” he said. “To maintain the integrity of the really important hemlock trees is among our sustainability objective.”

Whitmore said the funding allows the Botanic Gardens to guide his research in indicating sites where he can treat hemlock forests with the biological control agents he has developed.

“For our forests, it’s a huge deal,” he said. “The loss of hemlock is such an important species. It is, ecologically, a foundation species since hemlock forests produce a foundation upon which a myriad of species relies on for their survival. If you lose the hemlock within a forest, the whole game can be changed.”

Whitmore stressed the importance of hemlocks for keeping streams cool, which has important ecological implications for species’ survival, such as the brook trout.

“Our Hemlock gorges are iconic, aesthetic, and characteristic [of Ithaca],” Bittner added. “They provide cool conditions that increase biodiversity and they serve as outdoor classrooms for many educational and recreational programs.”

Further, Bittner argued that a loss of hemlocks would be “profound loss of biodiversity.” If they do disappear, he said, warmer conditions will result in earlier snow melt, stream flow and warmer water temperatures.

“This is not going to get solved overnight or in the five-year span of this grant,” he said. “This will be a long-term thing, spanning into 20 years or more. But it’s important that we start now and for people to realize how important this issue is so that funding will continue. … This is just the beginning.”

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted Bittner as saying snow will melt later in the year if there was a significant loss of hemlocks. In fact, the loss of hemlocks would create warmer temperatures in the surrounding areas, and snow would melt earlier in the year.