Petersburg Third-Graders Boost Science Skills With Project Plant It!

by Suyapa Marquez, Senior Community Affairs Representative for Dominion Energy

Page Hutchinson, VDOF’s forest education specialist, gave a special forestry presentation to all third-graders in Petersburg public schools on March 19. Students from the area’s four elementary schools came in two shifts to Walnut Hill Elementary School for an educational field trip that will help boost their science skills when the SOL testing period begins.

The field trip is part of a collaboration between the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and Dominion Energy’s Project Plant It! program, which helps students learn about the important role of trees in the ecosystem

During her fun and interactive presentation, Page led the students in a brain-building exercise where they looked at photos of commonly used items and voted thumbs up or thumbs down on whether the item came from a tree or not. Also, she engaged them in a high-energy “Tree Factory” exercise where the students acted out the different parts of a tree to better understand how complex trees really are.

Petersburg students voting (1)

As part of their involvement with Project Plant It!, the students will get a redbud tree seedling to plant at home for Arbor Day. Page shared a number of resources with the teachers and they also can download free lesson plans and instructional tools about trees from

Forester with tree cookie (1)

Johna Vazquez, an educator with Petersburg City Public Schools, thanked Page for sharing her expertise with the students. “Through the thought-provoking sessions, I believe our students grew in their depth of knowledge about the influence that trees have on our environment,” she said.

Project Plant It! is a free environmental education program developed by Dominion Energy to educate students and plant trees. The program began in Spring 2007, making Spring 2018 the 12th observance of this award-winning program. From 2007-2018, Dominion Energy has distributed about 500,000 free tree seedlings to students enrolled in the program in areas served by Dominion Energy. To learn more, visit


Field Notes: Hope for Hemlocks?

by VDOF Forest Health Specialist Katlin Mooneyham

Since its introduction to the United States in the 1950s, hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA) has been an unwanted resident in our hemlock forests. Feeding on eastern and Carolina hemlocks, this tiny sap sucking insect has established itself throughout most of the native range of both species. Unlike most insects, this tiny insect is active in the winter months, feeding on the stored nutrient reserves that help our hemlock trees produce new growth and foliage in the spring. You may not be familiar with the actual insect, but chances are you are very familiar with the “cotton ball” appearance of its protective covering found on the underside of hemlock branches.

The white “cotton balls” indicative of HWA on hemlock branches


This pest is originally from Asia, and most likely arrived on imported nursery stock. Since it has made itself comfortable in our eastern forests for more than half a century, its impact on hemlocks is far and wide, leaving skeletons of what were once hemlock giants.

While this is a depressing tale, there is hope in the form of an unlikely hero- a small predatory beetle that feeds exclusively on HWA. The beetle, Laricobius osakensis, is also active in the winter and feeds on all life stages of HWA.

Laricobius spp. adult under a microscope

It has been shown to only complete its life cycle by feeding on HWA and won’t feed on any other adelgid species. Many people are hopeful that this beetle will be able to establish and maintain HWA populations below damaging levels in our forests. Chemical options are available to protect trees, but are not feasible in large scale, forested settings. Natural predators, like our friend L. osakensis, are our best bet at naturally combatting the invasive HWA in the native range of our hemlock species.

L. osakensis larva eating a HWA egg

These beetles have been mass reared to the tune of 51,000, released at 52 sites in eight states. Two of these sites are in Shenandoah National Park (SNP), and a number of interested parties helped get them there. Virginia Tech Department of Entomology has been mass rearing these beetles for release purposes since 2011. In November of 2015, biologists from SNP made their first release of 500 beetles after obtaining the necessary paperwork and public review period. Another release was done last November at another site within the park. Because this release site was done on a park boundary, approval was also granted from the City of Charlottesville, whose property borders the release site. On April 2, Dale Meyerhoeffer (Biological Science Technician with SNP), Jeremiah Foley (graduate student in the Entomology Department at Virginia Tech), and I, Katlin Mooneyham (Forest Health Specialist here at VDOF) met at these release sites to study beetle establishment and overall stand health. We were very enthusiastic to find a fair number of beetles at both sites. Jeremiah also took soil samples to look at differences between the two sites and how it might affect beetle populations.

Jeremiah Foley (left) and Dale Meyerhoeffer (right) take samples and look for beetles in SNP

These sites will be continuously monitored over the next few years to determine how the beetles move through the forest and their impact on HWA populations. We are hopeful that these predators will continue to feast on HWA throughout the park and that we will see our hemlocks improve!

Image at top: Adult L.osakensis on a branch with HWA

VDOF Sends Help to TX and OK

A very long siege of wildfire activity, which shows no signs of coming to an end, is taking its toll on firefighting resources in Texas and Oklahoma. Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned, homes have been lost and there have been several injuries and fatalities over the last several weeks.

Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) Chief of Operations Ed Zimmer said, “Our friends in the Southwest are on their second month of ongoing, significant fire activity and need some help.” He and the VDOF Chief of Emergency Response John Miller agreed that Virginia could do just that.

John Miller said, “The recent rains could not have come at a better time as this will allow us to help our neighbors to the Southwest.”  The Virginia Department of Forestry realizes that their number-one responsibility is protecting Virginia citizens and resources; but agreements are also in place that allow for sharing state resources for incident management and wildfire control

Nine highly trained and qualified agency personnel were dispatched to Texas and Oklahoma Sunday.  Their expertise includes incident management, heavy equipment operation and direct wildland firefighting experience. Today the agency is sending an additional two brush trucks with four experienced personnel.  Finally, a fourteenth VDOF employee is assisting with a fire investigation in Oklahoma. Agency personnel are typically deployed for 14 days, and all of the related agency expenses will be reimbursed by the receiving state.

Virginia Department of Forestry Warns of Increased Fire Danger

In response to weather forecasts for Thursday, April 12, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) urges people to help prevent wildfires by postponing open-air fires until conditions improve. The combination of strong winds, increased temperatures and low humidity will create extremely dangerous fire weather conditions Thursday.

Fire Weather Watches have already been posted by the National Weather Service (NWS) covering northern and western Virginia for Thursday afternoon. Temperatures are expected to rise to the mid to upper 70s during the afternoon hours. A low pressure system bringing gusty winds of 30 to 40 mph with higher gusts, relative humidity values of 20 to 30 percent and low fuel moistures will combine to create an environment conducive to the rapid spread of wildfires. Any fires that develop could quickly burn out of control.

“Firefighter and citizen safety is our most important consideration and we base all recommendations and actions with that in mind,” says John Miller, VDOF director of fire and emergency response. “The VDOF has elevated its ability to respond as needed and reached out to other cooperators to make sure all wildfire emergency responders are aware of the increased dangers and will plan accordingly.”

Forestry officials urge everyone to delay all outdoor burning scheduled for Thursday, as wildfire dangers remain critical. This recommendation will be reevaluated for Friday and Saturday based on conditions forecasted for that period.

“We urge all citizens to postpone any burning until conditions improve,” stresses Fred Turck, VDOF wildfire prevention program manager. “Virginia’s 4 p.m. law is still in effect, making it illegal to have an open-air fire before 4 p.m. within 300 feet of the woods or dry grass leading to the woods.”

Field Notes: Everyone’s Happy When the Dozer Shows Up

by VDOF Forester Sarah Long

On March 2, most of Virginia experienced a prolonged period of high intensity winds at speeds of nearly 70 MPH. This was a long day for all volunteer and career first responders, beginning for some at 5 a.m. and not ending until well after dark. The Virginia Department of Forestry was very active during that day. This is my second spring fire season and I had never responded to so many incidents in one day. Needless to say, it was a learning experience.

In the NOVA work area we normally cover five counties with four full-time wildland fire responders. We are able to do this effectively thanks to our dedicated part-time firefighter crew. These are folks who, on their own initiative, have become trained in fighting wildland fire. Some are career firefighters and some have normal jobs unrelated to emergency response. All are excellent people who give us their time when they can. The ones we see most often are our bulldozer operators.

I had one part-time operator and bulldozer with me on March 2 as I went from fire to fire. The dozer may not be the first to arrive, but it is often the last to leave. Volunteer firefighters who had been dragging hose through the woods since before the sun came up could sit back and have a breather while the big tractor went to work. They could go to the next incident knowing that we would finish what they had started.

A bulldozer might seem a strange choice of equipment for someone unfamiliar with wildland fire. I assure you, it is one of our most valuable assets. A bulldozer can plow or push a quarter mile of fire line in the time it would take a six person crew to do half as much with pulaskis and fire rakes. The big machine can move logs and scrape away the thick layer of duff exposing the bare mineral soil that will stop a fire quicker than water. The dozer is also the best sawyer you will ever meet. What the machine lacks in finesse it makes up for in power and toughness. There are many trees that are too dangerous to cut; killer trees and widow-makers that we cannot safely get close to on foot, but the bulldozer can. Though not ideal, it will take a knock on the head from a falling branch much better than your average human will.

These machines are not invincible. They are governed by humans and therefore subject to human error. They break down, get stuck, and require an unearthly amount of grease on a seemingly daily basis. Loading and unloading them from the tall, flatbed trucks is an experience all in itself. But when the chips are down, the worth of these big tractors is immeasurable. Everyone’s happy when the dozer shows up. It doesn’t hurt that they look cool too.dozer2

Field Notes: Good Fire or Bad Fire?

by VDOF Forester  Manij Upadhyay

Wildfire is a serious environmental issue in The United States and may cause significant damage to communities and properties. On the other hand, prescribed fire is an essential tool for forest managers. Each year prescribed burns are carried out on thousands of acres of land. You could say fire has two sides.

Fire has a bad side because each year large numbers of uncontrolled wildfires harm people, destroy homes, damage timber crops and other properties. It can cause harmful impacts on the environment: polluting air, damaging vegetation, degrading water and deteriorating soils.

goshen pass 1
Goshen Pass wildfire 2017

However, if fire is used wisely by land managers, it can help in different ways. Fire can control unwanted invasive plants and promote the growth of desirable species. For example, longleaf pine responds well to fire, in fact its health is dependent of fire; the fire can help control other plants, allowing the longleaf to grow faster. Wildlife biologists use fire to create valuable wildlife habitat. Controlled fire, or prescribed fire, encourages the growth of new plants and produces more food for wild animals like white tail deer and quail. In addition, they reduce the risk of wildfires by decreasing the forest fuel load.

VDOF staff conduct a prescribed burn


Only trained prescribed burn managers should carry out controlled burn activities. They prepare prescribed burn plans that take into consideration wind speed, wind direction, temperature, humidity and the amount of forest fuel. They also think about fireline location and construction. A pre-constructed fireline limits the area to be burned before the actual burn starts.

Prescribed burns require planning and management


A prescribed burn manager respects fire. They apply it carefully and with a purpose. Fire can indeed have a good side. If done without proper planning and preparation or by unskilled and unqualified it has a bad side. I think Smokey Bear would agree “only you can prevent wildlifes, never play with fire.”

Prescribed burns have many benefits to managing forests; however they must be conducted by a qualified manager

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today April 5, 2018

by VDOF Area Forester Lisa Deaton

Wildlife and Clearcuts Part 2

A beaver hut in the middle of a pond or swamp is a familiar sight.  The one above is located in Beaverdam Swamp in Gloucester County.

While mapping a creek for another Riparian Buffer Tax Credit application, I had the opportunity to see a number of signs of beaver activity alongside a clearcut.

beaver dam (1)

First, I came across the beaver dam above.  The beavers have built their dam in a breach of an old earthen dam.

beaver stump (1)

Then I walked by some recent beaver chewing activity.  Beavers do not eat the entire tree after they cut it down.  They consume the nutritious inner bark by chewing on twigs and branches similar to the way that people eat corn on the cob.  Note that this beaver left the pieces from the center of the tree on the ground instead of eating them.  While beavers might cut down very large trees, they are really trying to access the numerous smaller branches at the top of the tree.

beaver bites (1)

Can you imagine having jaws and teeth strong enough to bite pieces of wood this large from a tree?

beaver skid trail lo res (1)

What was most unusual was the beavers’ clever use of the adjoining 30-acre clearcut.  There were a number of paths on the edge of the beaver pond where beavers had traveled between the cutover and their pond to glean loblolly pine branches.  In the photo above, the yellow arrow follows the center of their trail to the water’s edge, and the pink arrow points out some pine branches that the beavers snacked on along the way.   This path was so heavily traveled that it looked like a smaller version of the skid trails in the cutover.

beaver water entrance (1)

At this water entrance (above), the beavers have chewed on the American beech tree on the left.  In the water, there are more twigs that have been stripped of all their bark.

Beavers have been harvesting trees for several million years in North America, while humans have walked the planet for about 200,000 years.  So perhaps it is fair to say that beavers have more logging experience than we do.  At this site, they were shrewd enough to benefit from human logging activity in their search for wintertime food.

pine branches