This week and in the months ahead, volunteers will gather in a Nova Scotia forest to try and save its ancient hemlocks from a rapidly spreading invasive insect. 

Considered one of the last strongholds of the Wabanaki-Acadian forest, the multigenerational hemlock groves at Asitu’lɨsk (formerly Windhorse Farm) are under threat by the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA). 

“It’s kind of now or never…You have to inoculate the trees to give them a chance for survival, because once it (HWA) is in a forest, it will kill almost all of the trees within as little as two years,” Community Forests International (CFI) forest diversity manager Dani Miller said in an interview. 

“Up to eight or 10 years, they will all be gone and dead. And we can already see that in areas around Yarmouth and further in southwest Nova Scotia… If you miss the window of saving them, you can’t go back and try to do it later.”

A smiling woman with long reddish hair wearing glasses and a dark sweater leans against a young tree in a sunlight drenched forest.
Dani Miller, forest diversity manager with Community Forests International (CFI). Credit: Contributed

Located outside Bridgewater, Asitu’lisk includes 200 acres of ancient forest and waterways. At the end of 2021, the Drescher family — the land’s caretakers for 30 years — returned it to the Mi’kmaq. 

It’s now in the care of the Indigenous-led, Atlantic Canadian-based charity Ulnooweg Education Centre (UEC). From the Asitu’lisk website:

Asitu’lisk is a place to connect with Mother Nature, to learn, and to heal and grow. UEC is focusing on bringing together the generations to share knowledge. The primary focus aligns with land-based learning and healing for people of all ages, but especially for Elders, children, and youth to explore and learn from the land.

Under the care of the Ulnooweg Education Centre, this ancient forest will be protected forever, and Asitu’lisk will be a place for all to gather for the seven generations.

‘Saving them is very, very important’

But with the forest’s ancient hemlocks now under threat, UEC members are “urgently” requesting volunteer support and funds to help heal and protect the hemlocks.

“The Hemlock trees represent nature’s resilience in the midst of wildfires raging around the world,” notes an Ulnooweg media release.

“They are more than just trees; they are vital carbon sinks, refuges for wildlife, and a safeguard against escalating climate instability. As wildfires rage across British Columbia and across our country, it is more important than ever to protect our old growth forests.”

A view looking up from the ground of a canopy of tall trees with vibrant green canopies lit up by blue sky and sunlight.
Hemlocks at Asitu’lisk. Credit: Asitu’lisk

Ulnooweg describes hemlocks as “towering sentinels” that cool the forest’s air and water by an average of four to five degrees. While not all of them are ancient, an estimated 30,000 hemlock trees are growing in Asitu’lɨsk. 

So when HWA was found on a neighbouring property late last year, Miller was asked to survey the forest. Walking through the hemlocks, she found the pest at five different locations. She described it as in its early stages, but said HWA was present “pretty well throughout” the forest. 

“The reason that these forests are so special…is because of the historic lack of a strong economic market for hemlocks and the fact that hemlocks tend to grow along steep ravines and valleys and along rivers. So a lot of them haven’t been heavily logged in the past in Nova Scotia,” Miller explained. 

“A lot of the remaining old growth forest that remains — between 1% to 5% of the landscape, it’s already so little — is hemlock. So it’s definitely very important ecologically, climatically. The carbon stored in those forests is just so significant, and saving them is very, very important.”

High cost, high volunteer effort

Working with its neighbours, staff, Mi’kmaw elders, and organizations like CFI and the Mersey Tobeatic Institute, Ulnooweg forged a plan to protect and preserve the hemlocks at Asitu’lɨsk. They’ll initially focus efforts on inoculating trees in the most ecologically sensitive areas and those of highest cultural importance. 

After conducting an inventory of the hemlocks on the property, Miller pegged the cost of inoculating all the forest’s trees at about $300,000. 

“That would be a multi-year project to treat everything,” she said. “Which is why we’re going to see how much we can save of the areas of highest importance, and then bring in other other options to help the rest of the forest if we can’t get to treatment in time.”

This week, Miller said an estimated 20 to 25 volunteers (per day) will be onsite to help treat the trees. Two more weeks of treatment are planned for October and November. Volunteers are required to do everything from flagging and inoculating trees to helping with food preparations.

“It’s a high cost, high volunteer effort. But in the end, we’re saving some of the last old growth forests that are left of the Wabanaki-Acadian forest in Nova Scotia,” Miller said.

“This forest is finally returned to its rightful caretakers, Mi’kmaq people, and suddenly there’s this huge threat facing it. So it’s definitely been something a lot of people are eager to help with.”

Critical point

Describing this as a “critical point,” Miller said while the general public is largely unaware, many have been fighting HWA in Nova Scotia for years. She hopes this initiative raises awareness and encourages Nova Scotians to volunteer and even donate to the cause if possible.

Miller pointed to the cultural importance for the Mi’kmaq of forests that have maintained old growth conditions. 

“(They’re) in a pre-colonial state where they’re healthy and thriving, and they have these medicinal understory plants,” she said.

“It’s time to kind of switch it around, where we start listening to what these Indigenous communities throughout the province and the Wabanaki forest want and just do everything we can to support that.”

‘They hold a lot of memory and wisdom’

Ulnooweg’s chief operating officer (COO) Christopher Googoo remembers being awestruck the first time he walked through the hemlock forest in 2018.

“I was just fascinated and moved by the hemlock trees there, and finding that they were old growth forests predating even colonial times. So 500, 600 years old. All I could think of was when we say we always try and bring back language in our ceremonies and stuff,” Googoo said in an interview.

“And when you look back at these trees, they were there at those times. They’ve seen the history of over 500 years and what has gone on through this land. And they hold a lot of memory and wisdom as well to share with us. I just fell in love with it.” 

A man dressed in dark clothing stands at the base of a large tree in the forest as sunlight filters in through nearby trees.
Ulnooweg COO Christopher Googoo among hemlocks at Asitu’lɨsk. Credit: Asitu’lisk

Among Asitu’lisk’s hemlocks is a grove that’s more than 400 years old. One tree named Grandmother Maple is at least 530 years old. 

“By joining this cause, you contribute to more than conservation; you become part of history’s tapestry, united in healing and reconnecting to the land,” Googoo said in a media release.

While the land’s 30,000 trees aren’t all ancient, Googoo said they’re “the genes” of the old growth forest that surrounds them. 

“The property is unique because it is intergenerational as well. I would say at least 60%, 70% of that (forest) is hemlock, and there’s a large section of old growth forest in there,” Googoo said. 

“So that’s what we’re trying to protect and actually inoculate, the trees where we’ve found HWA right now.”

Initially focused on  7,000 trees

In the areas where the invasive insect has been found, Googoo said they’re focusing current efforts on about 7,000 trees. 

“(We’ll) get in those zones that are being attacked right now by the HWA,” Googoo said. “And from that we’ll just pick specific areas where all the old growth trees are. We want to protect those as well.”

In addition to partnering with other groups to discuss ways to tackle the problem, Googoo said they consulted with experts from across Canada and the U.S. to determine the best course of action. They chose inoculation over spraying.

Googoo said it’s time for local communities and the Mi’kmaq to unite “not only in the face of ecological disaster, but also as carriers of a ceremonial torch of reconciliation.”

The hemlock treatment process is fairly straightforward. Googoo said volunteers are needed to flag and measure trees to determine dosage amounts. Others will drill small holes in the trees and place the chemical capsules inside. Base volunteers are also required to help with tasks like water hauling and meal preparation.

“Other than walking in the woods, it’s not really physically demanding. But I think what’s demanding is the repetitiveness,” Googoo said. “If we’re looking at 7,000 trees, that would be kind of demanding. I think that’s where it helps to have a lot of people over a lot of days.”

Volunteers will be needed the weeks of Oct. 12-18 and Nov. 20-26. More information on signing up is available here.

A smiling man wearing a green jacket and boots and blue jeans sports vibrant green rubber gloves and inserts a white vial into a tree.
Ulnooweg COO Christopher Googoo during a hemlock treatment training exercise at Asitu’lɨsk. Credit: Asitu’lisk

Incorporating ceremony

The approach to treating the Asitu’lisk forest is being described as “innovative” because it integrates ceremony, medicine, and advanced treatment measures. 

“What’s different about how we’re treating them is bringing ceremony into the process. When we’re thinking about Asitu’lisk and bringing back ceremony and bringing back the wisdom of our grandmothers, we ensure that that process is in place,” Googoo said. 

“So, asking our elders to come in and pray over the trees that they accept the medicine that is given to them.”

Googoo said the incorporation of ceremony recognizes the trees as their own entities and acknowledges the “common life” that we share.

“You see that they need help, and you’re able to provide help to them. And they will provide what we need in terms of oxygen back. And we recognize that relationship,” he said. 

“We tend to use the term Netukulimk for that. The interconnectedness between all our relations…That is the recognition of that relationship with Mother Nature and all our relations.”

Googoo said Asitu’lisk is somewhat of a beacon in Nova Scotia because of the level of exposure it tends to receive. But he said if it also provides opportunities to support the health of the forest and water, “then it’s (about) much more than just ourselves.”

“It’s about our relationship and it’s about the future of all our children,” he said.

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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