Forest preservation work turns to Carolina hemlock

August 26, 2003

More than two decades ago, forestry researchers at North Carolina State University began the important work of conserving the genetic stock of Mexican and Central American coniferous forests by collecting seeds from stands of trees, and preserving genetic diversity through stockpiles of seeds stored at NC State and conservation plantings grown at other locations around the world.

Known as the Central America and Mexico Coniferous Resources (CAMCORE) Cooperative at its founding in 1980, the conservation and breeding effort is now a truly international program, with 25 participating institutions on four continents.

Supported by the Department of Forestry in NC State's College of Natural Resources, as well as the forest industry and government agencies, the cooperative has more than 2,500 hectares of conservation banks and field trials, and maintains the largest database in the world on tropical and subtropical pines.

Since its founding, CAMCORE has worked with 38 different forest species, and collected seed in nearly 400 locations and from more than 10,000 trees. Now this far-sighted forest conservation effort is paying off at home, as the same researchers work to save the Carolina hemlock from the woody adelgid. The tiny Asian insect, which decimated hemlock forests in the northeastern United States, is now attacking forests in western North Carolina.

The battle has two fronts. NC State entomologists are already finding ways to combat the destructive insect using such natural predators as the Japanese ladybird beetle, which feeds on the adelgid. The foresters' weapons are preservation of hemlock genetic diversity, and the development of improved forest varieties that are resistant to insect infestation.

This fall, CAMCORE researchers will explore the western N.C. mountains to collect seed of Carolina hemlock - throughout the range of the species - before stands are killed by the adelgid. The project is supported by a U.S. Forest Service grant, and the NC State team will work closely with Forest Service scientists. True to CAMCORE's global mission, some Carolina hemlocks will be grown in South Africa, in areas where the terrain resembles the species' N.C. mountain habitat.

Directed by Dr. Bill Dvorak, CAMCORE has active research projects in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Indonesia, South Africa, New Zealand and Venezuela. The bilingual CAMCORE team recently returned from Guatemala, where they taught a three-day tree-conservation and domestication program to 125 university, government and private industry participants. Presented entirely in Spanish, the course covered forest-gene conservation, genetic improvement, tree-breeding theory and practice, and vegetative propagation.

"The interest among the participants was intense," said Jose Romero, the program's technical manager at NC State, "and reflected their recognition of the importance of sustainable forests to their country's future." Posters and magazine and newspaper articles he brought back from Guatemala attest to the widespread attention the course garnered.

Many countries are finally aware of the grave threat of deforestation, and understand the long-term value of CAMCORE's vital mission, according to Dr. Gary Hodge, associate professor of forestry. "Deforestation in the tropics and subtropics has been going on for decades," he said, "with adverse impacts on important plant ecosystems as well as the overall environment. In addition, many of the forest practices simply aren't sustainable, and economies suffer as resources are depleted and not renewed."

Even worse, according to Romero, is the loss of the forests' unique genetic treasures. "The destruction of these forests represents an irreversible loss of species, provenances and gene complexes," he said. "This is particularly devastating since little is known about the potential uses of many of these species."

To help remediate the devastation, said Romero, "we've worked for more than 20 years to conserve some of this vanishing genetic material while it still exists."

CAMCORE's work in Central America may prove advantageous in ways they didn't initially expect. "Some of the coniferous trees in North America appear to have originated in Central America," said Hodge, "and we may find genetic strengths or benefits in Guatemalan tree species, for example, that our trees have gradually lost. Appropriately, by helping other nations protect and conserve their forests, we're helping preserve our own."

Working with local scientists and foresters, the NC State researchers collect seeds from threatened forest stands, often driving and hiking into remote regions. These seeds are then grown off site - often in another country entirely where the stands can be protected - and their genetic characteristics are examined and documented. Seeds from those plots can in turn be used to reintroduce trees into their native environments, and to develop improved varieties for long-term sustainable forests in both native environments and new regions.

It's that kind of farseeing work that's being done in the mountains of western North Carolina, where global lessons have found a backyard application. Especially useful is CAMCORE's experience with pine varieties, which abound in Mexico and Central America as well as in the Tar Heel state.

Scenic forests attract thousands of tourists every autumn, and the pulp and paper industries are multimillion-dollar businesses in the region. Saving the Carolina hemlock and other conifers, using insights and techniques gained in exotic places, will involve not only defeating its insect parasites, but also preserving and strengthening its genetic heritage for the benefit of all. "Thus," says Romero, "our great-grandchildren, and their progeny in turn, can admire with their peers around the globe both the physical and practical beauty of trees."
Media Contacts:
Dr. Gary R. Hodge, 919-515-6427
Jose Romero, 919-515-6429
Paul K. Mueller, News Services, 919-515-3470

North Carolina State University

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