KNOXVILLE, Tenn (WATE) – A beloved Smokies backroad is close to reopening after a 6-year closure due to trees damaged by an invasive insect.
Parson Branch Road is an 8-mile gravel road between Cades Cove and the western boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park service said they anticipate the road to reopen in early summer.
In 2016, a tree fell and churned up a 20-foot section of the road. Crews identified more than 1,700 hazardous trees within falling distance of the road, leading the park service to close it to all vehicle traffic.
“The narrow, low speed roadway closely winds along the creek through mature forests containing a high concentration of Eastern hemlock trees which were dead or dying due to a widespread infestation of the non-native forest pest, hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA),” the park service said.
The HWA disrupt the flow of nutrients to twigs and needles which kills the tree. Cost for removing the damaged trees at the time was $200,000 to $450,000, according to the park service.
“Park crews have continued to work diligently during the five-year closure to remove downed trees blocking the road and to make needed road repairs to ensure that the corridor was passable for emergency vehicles,” a press release states. “Over this time period, more than half the dead trees have fallen due to natural deterioration and multiple large storm events.”
A $100,000 donation by Friends of the Smokies allowed the park to remove an additional 800 hazardous trees from along the road. That donation was matched by an additional $50,000 from federal funds.
The Park awarded the $150,000 contract to Richmond Tree Experts for the tree removal.
Parson Branch Road is reached by turning onto Forge Creek Road near the Cades Cove Visitor Center. After passing the Henry Whitehead House, visitors must turn right before reaching the Gregory Ridge Trailhead. Parson Branch Road exits onto Highway 129, also known as the Tail of the Dragon.
Once the tree removal work is complete, Park crews will begin working on road clean-up, ditching, and grading of the road surface to ready it for opening.
To help prevent the spread of HWA, experts say gear used near an infestation should be thoroughly cleaned, and material that is infested should be left where it was found.
“Without successful intervention, the hemlock woolly adelgid is likely to kill most of the hemlock trees in the park,” the National Park Service warns in a post about the HWA on Great Smoky Mountains website.
Efforts to control HWA are being funded through the Save the Hemlocks initiative of the Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.