Great Smoky Mountains National Park officials announced the temporary closure of Parson Branch Road due to the concentration of hazard trees lining the roadway. The 8-mile, one-way gravel roadway begins in Cades Cove and exits along US Highway 129. Typically the road is opened each season between April and November.
Park crews originally delayed opening the road due to a damaged, 20-linear-foot section of roadway caused by an uprooted dead tree. After further inspection, crews identified over 1,700 hazardous trees within falling distance of the 8-mile roadway. The estimated cost of hazardous tree removal for the area ranges between $300,000 and $450,000. The narrow, low speed roadway closely winds along the creek through mature forests containing a high concentration of Eastern hemlock trees which are now dead or dying due to a widespread infestation of the non-native forest pest, hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA).
Eastern hemlock is one of the most common trees in the Smokies and can be found in a variety of habitats at elevations up to 5,000 feet. The park contains over 87,000 acres of hemlock forests. HWA was first detected in the park in 2002. Since then, park biologists have aggressively treated over 15,000 acres of hemlock forests using a combination of chemical and biological control treatments. Biologists estimate that our treatment efforts have protected approximately 15% of hemlock forests throughout the park, but the remaining 85% of hemlock forests are in a state of chronic decline.
“The park is now dealing with one of the greatest ecological challenges since the chestnut blight,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “Through the dedication of our staff and support from generous donors and our partners, Friends of the Smokies and Great Smoky Mountains Association, we continue to develop and implement successful chemical treatments and sustainable biological controls to protect large contiguous hemlock stands across many watersheds in the park as well as heavily used roads, campgrounds, and picnic areas. Unfortunately, with so many acres of hemlocks in our backcountry, we simply can’t reach them all and are now experiencing widespread losses across the park.”
Park officials caution all backcountry users to be situationally aware of their surroundings while hiking. In particular, hikers should avoid walking through dead hemlock areas on windy days when trees and overhead branches are likely to fall. Before setting up tents, campers should look up and ensure there are no dead limbs or trees above their campsite. Hikers should also hike with caution during extremely wet periods when dead trees are likely to be uprooted from saturated soils.
Parson Branch Road will remain closed to all vehicle use by the public. Vehicle use along a roadway requires a higher level of maintenance than park crews can provide at this time. Crews cannot respond to all the hazardous or downed trees along the roadway in a timely manner to ensure that motorists are not stranded.
Parson Branch Road will be open to hikers and horseback riders who should assess the risk for travel as they would in any area of the backcountry. Due to the nature of wide corridor, bicyclists are allowed to use the road during the closure. Dogs on a 6-foot leash will also be allowed.
For more information on road and trail closures, please visit the park website at http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/temproadclose.htm.