Partnership takes state researchers to the skies to track tent caterpillars

(WCAX)
Published: Jan. 17, 2020 at 8:15 AM EST
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A new collaboration between Vermont forestry officials and the Civil Air Patrol is giving researchers a better understanding of recent tent caterpillar infestations that have damaged thousands of acres.

Sugar-makers back in 2016 told the state they started seeing tent caterpillars everywhere. In 2017, some parts of the Northeast Kingdom didn't burst with the same fall foliage because trees didn't have leaves.

"We noticed that there were in some places full sides of mountains that were defoliated," said Josh Halman, a forest health specialist with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation,

Vermont's vast landscapes of lush green were interrupted by large patches of brown wood. But Halman says it didn't just look bad.

"When there aren't leaves on the trees, the trees aren't able to photosynthesize, they're not able to make sugars that produce the maple syrup that we all know and love," he said.

That can dramatically affect sugar-makers' bottom lines. Halman says he saw about 20,000 decimated acres in 2016 and 70,000 by 2018. But there was a huge difference just last year.

"In 2019, we only have 500 acres," said Halman.

He and his team record the aerial survey findings in tablets, giving landowners insight into what's happening in their own backyards.

"Whether or not they're a sugar-maker, whether they're managing their forest for timber, these sorts of outbreaks or presence of insects, in general, are really important to many people in Vermont," said Halman.

Though specialists have been mapping Vermont's forests from the sky for decades, they've only been going up with the Vermont Wing of the Civil Air Patrol for the last two years. Forestry technicians will communicate with the pilots through headsets to make sure they get into a precise position to properly survey the land.

Pilots like Capt. Bryan Holland can do that with just the turn of a knob.

"We're able to program flight paths at specific heights, specific speeds that works well for them, so we can give them a very consistent grid search," Holland said.

He says because his aircraft is small and efficient, primarily used for search and rescue, volunteer pilots can fly the specialists higher for longer while burning less fuel.

"Not only is it saving taxpayers' money by having volunteer pilots and relatively low fuel costs, we're not putting out as much either. We have a variety of missions, but the state mission is something relatively new to us, so it's just one more way that our volunteers can give back to Vermont," said Holland.

Experts say they can mitigate the spread of the caterpillar, but there's not a whole lot they can do.

Forest health specialists will monitor the forests again this year to determine the long-term impact of this latest outbreak.