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Filmmakers Highlight Plight of Cook Forest’s Iconic Hemlocks

The hemlocks of the Forest Cathedral in Cook Forest State Park stretch more than a hundred feet into the sky. Some are 350 years old. Their canopy forms a ceiling of green and the sunlight that filters through it can give it a heavenly aura worthy of its name.

In 1967, the National Park Service made the Forest Cathedral a National Natural Landmark, a designation meant to encourage “the conservation of sites that contain outstanding biological and geological resources.” But now the entire forest is under threat. Eastern hemlock trees are being decimated at an alarming rate by an invasive insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid.

Two local filmmakers decided to do something about it. David and Melissa Rohm are the husband/wife team behind Wild Excellence Films. They made the short documentary about the conservation efforts underway in Cook Forest called Cathedral: The Fight to Save the Ancient Hemlocks of Cook Forest. Kara Holsopple sat down with David Rohm recently to learn more.

LISTEN: “Filmmakers Highlight Plight of Cook Forest’s Iconic Hemlocks”

Kara Holsopple: Tell me a little bit about the old growth trees in Cook Forest, and why you wanted to make a film about them.

David Rohm: We spent many, many years up in Cook Forest hiking and photographing things. It’s unique because of how old these trees really are. One day we ran into Dale Luthringer, the premier education specialist for Pennsylvania state parks. He didn’t quite seem like himself, and he was like, ‘The forest is in trouble. There’s this new thing this infestation, hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA).’ We couldn’t believe it.  Then we saw the pictures from North Carolina, and where it first started, in Virginia. That could easily happen here.

Filmmakers David and Melissa Rohm hope their film brings attention to the threat facing Cook Forest. Photo: David Rohm

KH: What is the history of HWA, the invasive insect in Cook Forest?

DR: It was discovered in Cook Forest in 2013. It’s so tiny and it spread so fast. They’ve lost a few nice, big trees. They’re treating the trees with a chemical drench that goes in on the roots of these hemlock trees. They have treated with beetles that feed on exclusively HWA. That’s having some success.  It’s multiple treatments; not one silver bullet.

KH: Who is the narrator of the film?

DR: That is Dr. Joan Maloof, executive director of the Old-Growth Forest Network. She’s an amazing lady who does so much for forests and forest education. She’s a true expert and just a super person. And we loved her voice. ‘

WATCH a trailer of “Cathedral: The Fight to Save the Ancient Hemlocks of Cook Forest”

KH: What would it mean to lose the hemlocks in Cook Forest, to the ecosystem there and also to people?

DR: Cook Forest would be a much different place. If you’ve been to Cook Forest, there’s a sheltering ability that these hemlock trees provide. 120-foot trees, you take away even half of them, and you’re going to see a huge difference. There’s a lot of wildlife. Migrating birds love the forest –way up in the canopies, they’re safe there. They reintroduced fishers there not too long ago. It’s like a mink but a little bigger. To people, Cook Forest means a tremendous amount. They get 500,000 visitors a year who aren’t going to visit if it’s not the same forest.

“When you walk through this cathedral, it does something to you. You will have a love for this ancient forest that carries through your life. Walking here, I am at peace. But never far from my mind is what could happen.”  -Joan Maloof

KH: At the beginning of the film, there’s a quote on the screen by writer Edward Abbey: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” So what do you want people to think about and to do as a result of seeing this film?

DR: A lot of people are genuinely concerned and upset that this is happening. We screen this film throughout Pennsylvania. Being sentimental is not going to do it, because we’re going to lose trees. This is an ongoing, huge expense for the state, for the park. So we just want to be sure people understand it’s a long term battle. They can make a small donation, or make a big donation, and they can get involved in work days.

Dale Luthringer, Environmental Education Specialist for Cook Forest State Park, checks out a hemlock up close. Photo: Wild Excellence Films

Some of the places in Cook Forest are really hard to get to. They’re on terribly steep slopes, and the park can’t get to all of them. But monitoring can be, if you’re out for a hike — all you have to do is turn the little branch over and take a look at it. And the park might not know where HWA is from year to year. HWA can get carried by wind, it can get carried by people, it can get carried by birds. We’re all very hopeful that there’s going to be a technology or a biotechnology that can help eradicate HWA and help these trees. But right now, we’re just trying to keep up. Treatment methods are working. Nothing’s one hundred percent, but the state is really committed. We want to make sure the forest is there forever.

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“Cathedral: The Fight to Save the Ancient Hemlocks of Cook Forest” will be shown at the Saw Mill Center for the Arts in Cook Forest State Park in June. The special event will include an introduction by the filmmakers, and a Q&A session with Cook Forest park rangers and DCNR personnel. You can also watch it in its entirety here. (Photo, top, courtesy of Wild Excellence Films).