This time of year, countless visitors invade the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for some summer fun. Thursday officials with the park confirmed the invasion of a long-expected pest known to destroy millions of ash trees across the country.
For the first time, biologists have confirmed the presence of the Emerald Ash Borer beetle inside the GSMNP. Park biologist Glenn Taylor said he knew this day was coming.
"We've been hearing about it getting closer and closer. They confirmed the Emerald Ash Borer in more and more counties around the park. It was going to get here. It's just a matter of when," said Taylor.
The park began setting out bright purple glue traps in 2008 in anticipation of the arrival of the bright green menace. For the last four years, Taylor has checked the traps without finding a trace of the Emerald Ash Borer. Recently he found five of the insects in a trap at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and two more of the beetles in the Greenbrier area of the park.
"It's like, 'This is it. It is here.' It's always a shock, even when we've been expecting them for a while now. We sent them off to a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist and they confirmed it was the Emerald Ash Borer," said Taylor. "The larvae basically tunnel beneath the bark of the ash trees and the tunnels stop the tree from being able to transport water and nutrients. Then the trees basically starve to death."
Taylor said biologists are still evaluating the best way to respond to the pest, including possible chemical treatments for ash trees in the park. For the last four years, workers have tried to map where the trees exist in the park.
The primary way to slow the spread of the beetle continues to be a quarantine on moving firewood.
"That is the primary transport mode for the beetle. They can fly a couple of miles, but they are spreading at a much faster rate as people move firewood and timber. Leave your firewood at home," said Taylor.
The Tennessee Department of Agriculture has quarantined 12 counties in East Tennessee. The quarantine federally prohibits the distribution of firewood and timber.
The most recent addition to the list of quarantined areas is Union County. The Emerald Ash Borer was confirmed in Union County on May 30. Earlier in May the list expanded to include Anderson, Hawkins, Hamblen, Hancock, and Roane Counties. Knox, Blount, Sevier, Loudon, Claiborne, and Grainger Counties are also quarantined.
Park officials say there are plenty of ways to fuel your campfire without bringing in personal firewood. One way is to search for dead wood on the ground around your campsite. Campgrounds at Elkmont and Cades Cove sell inspected bundles of firewood.
There are some acceptable forms of wood to bring inside the park. Taylor said scrap lumber pieces are generally fine because they are generally heat-treated and void of bark. You can also buy firewood bundles that include a label with the USDA shield to ensure it is pest-free.
"The trees still look fine that we found the beetles in, so it's still early on. We just want to control the pest as best we can because every species you lose is a loss of what basically keeps the whole ecosystem together," said Taylor.
The insect was first found in East Tennessee at a Watt Road truck stop in July 2010. It is believed to have been introduced into the Detroit, Mich. area 15 to 20 years ago on wood packing material from Asia. Since then, the destructive insect has killed millions of ash trees across several states including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin.