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Mountain Home Magazine

Shading Trout with 10,000 Trees

Sep 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Gayle Morrow

Old Chinese Proverb (Seriously, have you ever known a Chinese proverb to be anything but old?): The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second-best time is today.

I’ve been having eclectic conversations with my buddy Jim Weaver for well over thirty years. Three-plus decades! Who’d ‘a thunk it? Jim, an aquatic biologist by training, has been a county planner, a farrier, a volunteer on numerous boards, including the Tioga County Conservation District’s and the Pine Creek Watershed Council’s, and can wax eloquent (and at length) on a diverse range of subjects. Those include, but are in no way been limited to: the importance of good Scotch, laminitis, holistic resource management (that one’s worth looking up), carbon sequestration, the evils of impermeable surfaces, and the inestimable value of shade for brook trout—sometimes called the hemlock trout. So when I knew our next conversation would be about planting 10,000 trees, trees that would eventually provide shade for said trout, I had a couple of pens and a lot of paper at the ready.

Pennsylvania’s state tree is the eastern hemlock. It is valuable, environmentally and otherwise, not just because it offers erosion control in dodgy places where other trees don’t thrive, and not just because it provides a cool, dark, and sheltered environment for a variety of plant and animal species (at least 400 species of living things need the hemlock to complete their life cycle, Jim says) but because it is. If you’re a tree lover, a tree hugger, no further explanation needed.

Around 2015, there was an “awareness,” Jim says, of the expansion into the northern counties of an aphid-like, non-native invasive insect known as the woolly adelgid. These little creeps feed on the hemlocks’ sap, sometimes for years, interfering with their abilities to use nutrients. The end result is needle drop, branch die-back, and tree death. The first sitings of the bugs in the lower Pine Creek Valley in Lycoming County had been around 2010; they were clearly on the move north from their Japan-to-Virginia origins in the 1950s, and the Bureau of Forestry subsequently “realized we would lose our hemlocks.” Ergo, the trout? A distinct possibility.

Tree experts theorized initially that our winters would kill the insects. But, in case you haven’t noticed, things aren’t what they used to be in the great outdoors. Our winter weather has been different these past few decades, definitely not colder (attribute that to whatever lets you sleep at night—it’s probably nothing you or anyone you know has done or is doing), and the woolly adelgids have been uncooperative—i.e. they’re not dying. So, the Bureau of Forestry put together a plan, a “decent plan,” actually, that included strategies for managing the insect itself as well as for planting conifers that could act as hemlock surrogates.

Being a bureau, there was, of course, some bureaucracy, the bottom line being that the most appropriate hemlock surrogate, the Norway spruce, a tree native to north, central, and eastern Europe, one that has enjoyed a long and blameless tenure in this country, was deemed inappropriate to plant on Bureau of Forestry land because it is not a species native to Pennsylvania. Not that other conifers wouldn’t be good or helpful, and of course those will be planted, but, with what some considered the best tree out of the running, there was consternation and, perhaps, a few expletives deleted. Then somebody—a fish warden, actually—came up with the idea of planting the Norway spruce on private land, along private stream banks. Yes! With support from the Pine Creek Watershed Council, Trout Unlimited, the Tioga and Potter County Conservation Districts, a cadre of fisher-type folk, and private landowners, seeds for the 10,000-tree-planting project, a.k.a. Plant a Tree, Shade a Trout, were sown. The first plantings followed in the spring of 2019. Funding came from a few different sources; the sweat equity came from dedicated volunteers willing to donate a day during a really crucial time of year—fishing season.

“It was great to come down to Tioga County to be with a group of like-minded and committed conservationists,” says volunteer John Thurgood, from Stowe, Vermont. “The deforestation of riparian areas has been devastating to aquatic habitat and wildlife. It was great to have the opportunity to play a small part in bringing it back. Special thanks to the Pine Creek Watershed Council and Tioga County Conservation District for plugging me in.”

“It’s a commitment to give up four or five Saturdays during trout season,” says Jim. To say he’s an avid fly-fisherman is as much of an understatement as saying…oh, I can’t even come up with a comparison. Suffice it to say, Jim lives to fish.

This planting season produced, pardon the analogy, a watershed moment in the project—the planting of the 10,000th tree. That’s a guestimate, but a pretty good one. The volunteers put 1,800 stems in the ground the first year, 3,000 in 2020, 2,400 in 2021, and 3,000 in 2022. An informal assessment of the process leads to the equally informal conclusion that, if the same general areas are replanted for three years in a row, the tree survival rate is 50 percent without any kind of maintenance. That’s not bad.

What about next year? Early in our gab session, Jim was non-committal, made noises about maybe having had enough of it, but, ultimately he kind of talked himself back into it.

“It’s been a lot of fun. We’ve still got money, and we’ve got the equipment…” And they’ve got the support of a couple of key players—Tyler Upham, the Tioga County Conservation District’s watershed specialist, and Jarrod Dickerson, the Potter County Conservation District’s watershed specialist. They’ve been super-helpful, Jim says.

So, why don’t we all have a dram of Laphroaig and go plant some trees.

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