In West Virginia's scenic Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, with its gently sloping mountains and emerald acres of timber, Mike Powell relishes the perks of his job as a caretaker of the land: the sounds of a gurgling stream and the fresh pine scent of evergreens.
But one sight deeply troubles him -- the haggard look of the valley's fabled Christmas trees. Some are bent like old men. The eye-popping green hue that makes people want to adorn them with ornaments had yellowed. A few were covered with hideous waxy balls, a telltale sign that they were under siege by the balsam woolly adelgid, a tiny insect with a notorious reputation among entomologists, who call it "the bug that ate Christmas."
Along the southern Appalachian range, they are eating two of the nation's most popular wild Christmas trees -- Canaan and Fraser firs -- to death.
People who buy Christmas trees at farms need not worry. Farmers who grow Christmas trees control the pest with a potent and costly insecticide, two-man crews spraying one to two acres a day. They work with agricultural extension agents to develop the most efficient pest management strategy because, said Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association, "it's very expensive."
But there's no stopping adelgids in the wild, where applying chemicals might take out far more organisms than the target.
"We've seen a tremendous decline" in the Canaan fir in its native area, said Powell, who manages a tract of woods for the Nature Conservancy. "We're concerned that it'll decline to the point that you'll only see it on tree farms. These trees will survive on tree farms, but in the wild ... we could lose that tree."
Fraser firs, North Carolina's best-selling Christmas tree, have been all but wiped out on Mount Mitchell in Mount Mitchell State Park since the adelgid was discovered there in the mid-1950s.
"The Fraser fir is ... in peril, badly affected by this adelgid," said Andrew Liebhold, a research entomologist for the U.S. Forest Service in Morgantown, W.Va.
"I don't expect them to totally disappear in my lifetime," Liebhold said. But the die-off of Fraser firs at Mount Mitchell is a major concern. Younger trees are growing there now, "but the danger is when they're older" and reach 20 feet, a height at which, for unknown reasons, adelgids crave their sap.
Balsam firs, including the Canaan and Fraser varieties, are common in North America, especially from Massachusetts to Maine and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario. They thrive in cold areas mainly because adelgids struggle to survive in exceedingly cold temperatures.