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Festival gathers nature lovers to raise money, focus on endangered hemlocks
Arrie Bozeman of The Ain’t Sisters sings Saturday afternoon during day two of the annual HemlockFest in Dahlonega. The three-day festival, which is meant to increases public awareness of Eastern and Carolina hemlock tree problems, continues today when gates open at 9 a.m.


When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Starbridge Retreat, 396 Starbridge Road, Murrayville

Cost: $20 Friday, $30 Saturday and $15 Sunday; three-day pass $55; Children 15 and younger are admitted free with a supervising adult ticket holder.

More info:

North Georgia is known for the natural beauty of its towering forests of pine, oak, maple and hemlock. And when those forests are threatened, Georgians from all over gladly come to their aid.

Over the last 12 years, the annual HemlockFest in Murrayville has been at the forefront of conservation efforts for two of the Northeast’s most threatened species, the Eastern and Carolina hemlocks.

Off the beaten path and nestled in a 50-acre retreat outside Dahlonega, the event showcases three days of music, food, camping and activities to raise money and awareness of the hemlocks’ peril.

“Normally we get a couple thousand folks, but this year our presale was double what it normally is. It could have been the weather, or it could have been word of mouth,” said Forest Hilyer, the Lumpkin Coalition chairman.

This year’s festival boasted more than 20 musical acts spread through the weekend, food and drinks from Shenanigans Irish Pub and Terrapin Brewery, and activities from canoeing to knife-throwing.

Hilyer said that after 12 years of conservation efforts in North Georgia, both the Carolina and the Eastern hemlock are still in danger due to an invasive pest known as the hemlock wooly adelgid. The small, aphid-like creature infests hemlock branches, consuming starches and cutting off new growth for the tree, usually killing it within three to six years.

Unlike in other areas of the country, the adelgid has no natural predators in North Georgia, leaving it with free reign to kill and reproduce virtually unchecked.

Hilyer said the hemlock issue is not going away anytime soon, so outreach and fundraising are the Coalition’s best bet at beating the adelgid.

“We want to keep a fire lit underneath the issue, so it doesn’t fade away or get drowned out by other issues,” Hilyer said. Currently, scientific and social groups like the Georgia Forestry Commission, Atlanta Audubon Society and Sierra Club are approaching the problem with a three-pronged approach: introducing non-native biological controls, using chemicals treatments, and preserving hemlock seeds if species needed to be reseeded.

Hilyer says though chemical treatments are effective, his organization supports the more long-term biological control approach of introducing different non-native beetles into areas with hemlock concentrations to feed on the adelgids.

“The chemicals are only a Band-aid,” he said, “so they work but you can’t do that forever.”

He estimates that in the past 12 years, the festival has raised nearly $250,000 for beetle labs at The University of North Georgia, Young Harris College and The University of Georgia.

Jim Sullivan of the Georgia Forestry Commission and Jann George, owner of AdelRid, say the solution to the adelgid will be found in the balance between biological controls and chemical treatments.

Both are ground soldiers in the fight; Sullivan responsible for releasing many of the beetle species on targeted areas, and George working to chemically treat trees on private lands.

“We are working and doing trials combining chemical and biological (methods) in the same spot,” George said. “I believe what we are onto right now is going to lead to the success, if there is a successful end game.”