Ecosystem Services: Remembering Why We Do What We Do

With the holiday season and our lab work in full swing, we’re finding that it’s a little hectic here at the New York State Hemlock Initiative. We’re collecting, analyzing, compiling, and observing all sorts of phenomena and data in the lab and it feels like we’re up to our eyeballs in samples. This time of year, though, it’s nice to remember what we are grateful for, and so on this busy Friday afternoon we’re reflecting on why we do what we do, and what we are hoping to save from the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid.

Hikers enjoy the natural beauty of hemlocks along a stream at IBM Glen near Binghamton, NY

Hemlock trees are special to us for a number of reasons, not least because they are pretty gorgeous trees to look at. But their beauty as part of the forested landscape here in New York is secondary to the many ecosystem services that hemlocks provide. The Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is what is known as a foundation species, which means that it has an inordinately vital role in its ecosystem. Unfortunately, hemlock trees are so common in our forests that they are often taken for granted. New York has the most eastern hemlock trees of any state in the United States, and those hemlocks are the third most common tree statewide! The highest concentrations of those hemlocks are in the Adirondacks and the Tug Hill Plateau. While we may not immediately notice all the hemlocks around us, we certainly would take note if they disappeared.

Foundation species like hemlock are critical in their environments for several reasons. Firstly, they occupy the base of the food web in their habitat, providing food and shelter for numerous forest species. Hemlocks create unique terrestrial (land) and riparian (river) habitats in eastern forests. Some species that rely on hemlocks for food, shelter, or key habitat features include moose, porcupines, brook trout, and migrating birds. For trout and other aquatic species hemlocks provide shade and slower snow melt in the spring to keep streams cool and clean. This ecosystem service benefits humans too, especially those who rely on local sources for their water needs. In fact, hemlocks around Skaneateles Lake, for instance, help prevent sediment, fertilizer, and pesticide runoffs from getting into the lake, acting as a buffer and improving water quality for the citizens of the city of Syracuse and surrounding areas who rely on Skaneateles for their water. Without hemlocks, expensive water filtration systems would need to be put into place, making conserving hemlocks an economic choice as well as an environmental choice.

Hemlock trees help stabilize banks like those on either side of the waterfall at Taughannock Falls State Park outside Ithaca, NY

In addition to providing key habitat and cool, clean water resources, hemlocks play a vital role in stabilizing stream banks which helps prevent erosion of sediment. Hemlock trees are able to grow on incredibly steep slopes, just like those here in the gorges of Ithaca and the surrounding Finger Lakes towns. Without hemlocks, water quality in streams and lakes would decrease due to increased sedimentation and the beautiful gorges around New York wouldn’t be nearly as strong and stable. Hemlocks also create acidic soil conditions and cleaner air, which allow for the growth of unique mosses and lichens along streams, gorges, and in forests.

The New York forests as we know them would be entirely different places without our hemlock trees. Certainly they’d be places with less natural beauty and a lower diversity of wildlife, but also the quality of life that we humans enjoy from the invisible benefits hemlocks provide would be affected. Here at the New York State Hemlock Initiative we are thinking about the benefits hemlocks provide us every day, and we are working to conserve the legacy of hemlocks in New York’s forests. With that goal in mind, we remain thankful for all that hemlocks give us and hope that we can give something back to them by giving them a fighting chance against the hemlock woolly adelgid.

To learn more about the threat of the hemlock woolly adelgid, click here.

To learn more about our biocontrol program and what we are doing to keep the legacy alive, click here.

To learn how you can get involved, click here.

We also love to hear from you! You can report HWA findings, tell us about HWA on your property, get advice on managing HWA on your land, or just ask us anything about hemlocks and HWA by emailing us at You can also keep up with us by liking or following the New York State Hemlock Initiative Facebook page.