A silent plague is reshaping Chattanooga’s wilderness


A winter hemlock stream. | Photo by Juliet Johnson

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Juliet Johnson is a wilderness advocate who teaches Chattanooga-area classes on conservation, foraging, and environmental stewardship.

Meeting a hemlock

It’s a humbling experience to meet a 500-year-old being.

Nearly 300 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, a young tree was growing outside of Chattanooga. As it reached toward the canopy, the native peoples it once shaded were violently displaced and replaced by settlers from Europe. Its branches spread as the first steam engines chugged up the plateau, the first cars hit the road, and the first GPS satellites passed overhead. It has — for better or worse — borne witness to a huge swath of our human history.


Hemlock forest | Photo by Juliet Johnson

But today this giant is in mortal danger from a tiny but ruthless invader. Even though many people don’t even know that this battle is being fought, a dedicated group of environmentalists and scientists are scrambling to find a solution before Tennessee’s most important forests are lost forever.

What’s at stake

The eastern hemlock is known as the ‘redwood of the East.’ These giants congregate on the sandy slopes of streams and dominate the landscape, bringing stillness and shade to their protected glens.

Hemlocks are a keystone species. When hemlocks die out, the cool, damp forest floor can become dry and cracked as the deciduous trees that replace them allow sunlight to pass through. Their root systems are integral in preserving the integrity of stream banks, preventing sediment and erosion. Without the hemlocks, our stream ecosystems will be in grave danger.

The invaders

The hemlock wooly adelgid (HWA) is a tiny insect that made its way to the United States from Asia, most likely hitching a ride on an infested sapling brought over to be planted here.

Native predators can keep the adelgid under control in its Asian habitat, but it has no predators on our continent. Once HWA infects a hemlock, that tree will be dead within 10 years. As this massive infestation marches westward, we see a grim picture of Chattanooga’s possible future: in Shenandoah National Park, 80% of the hemlocks are already dead — a forest of ghosts.


The hemlock wooly adelgid up close. | Photo by Juliet Johnson

With devastation on our doorstep, foresters in Tennessee are fighting to save our hemlocks from the same fate, using emergency treatments to temporarily protect the trees from HWA, as well as longer-term projects to try to introduce predators to control adelgid’s populations. But HWA is already here, and it’s going to be a tough fight.

What you can do

First, go meet a hemlock. Having these wild marvels in Chattanooga is a rare gift that shouldn’t be taken for granted, especially given the imminent threat they are facing. The 500 year-old tree mentioned here is just a scenic drive away, on the Grundy Day Loop in South Cumberland State Park.

And bearing witness is already part of the answer: appreciation of our state parks helps convince lawmakers that these wild spaces deserve better funding and support. You can also contribute directly to groups like Lula Lake Land Trust and the Friends of South Cumberland State Park, who are on the front lines of the fight to save our hemlocks.

Standing beside a tree that’s twice as old as our nation, it can feel like the forest will be here forever. But the truth is that even these ancient and sacred places can be lost in the blink of an eye. So, most importantly, don’t let this silent threat stay silent — speak out for Chattanooga’s forests, before it’s too late.

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