Nova Scotia·ATLANTIC VOICE

Operation Hemlock: How an ER physician ended up treating trees

A new Atlantic Voice documentary details the big fight against a tiny bug threatening an iconic tree species in Nova Scotia.

A new Atlantic Voice documentary details the big fight against a tiny bug

George Kovacs, an emergency room physician, was a key organizer of the push to save these rare old growth hemlock trees in the Tobeatic Wilderness Area from a devastating invasive insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

A tiny insect that could spell devastation for Nova Scotia's eastern hemlocks has been thwarted in one old-growth stand — at least for the short-term — by a volunteer effort spearheaded by a man better known for battling human diseases.

Dr. George Kovacs is an emergency department physician in Halifax who, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, developed Nova Scotia's protocol for looking after the sickest patients.

Between hospital shifts in 2021, he was also putting together a mission to try and save a stand of old-growth eastern hemlock in the Tobeatic Wilderness Area. The enemy? The hemlock woolly adelgid, an aphid-like invasive species that has been killing hemlocks in Nova Scotia since 2017.

"This is a pandemic affecting trees," Kovacs said.

Having fundraised more than $125,000 to cover the costs of an adelgid-killing insecticide, Kovacs and other volunteers portaged and paddled into an island on Sporting Lake in October 2021 to inoculate a rare stand of old-growth hemlocks.

It was "a life-changing experience for many people, including myself," he said.

A hemlock branch infested with the adelgid. (Parks Canada)

The volunteers worked for about two weeks from an elaborate base camp that housed everything from a safe storage facility for the insecticide to a drinking water filtration system, and even a small cell tower.

The effort was a race against time, as the hemlock woolly adelgid was already present among the trees. The insect, native to the Pacific Northwest and Japan, feeds on the tree's sugars, and in so doing can kill a hemlock in as little as three years. 

"We treat, or we allow them to die. And it's a certain death," said Donna Crossland, a volunteer and forest ecologist who is one of Nova Scotia's leading experts on the insect.

Usually, Dr. George Kovacs is in a Halifax ER. How did he come to lead a volunteer effort against a "pandemic affecting trees" in the Nova Scotia wilderness? CBC's Phlis McGregor explores that in her documentary.

Scott Robinson was the first person to sound the alarm about adelgid in the Sporting Lake hemlocks.

"I paddle the Tobeatic a lot, and if I came here and the trees were all dead, which is certain to happen if they're not treated, I just couldn't deal with that unless I could look at the trees and say, 'You know what? I did everything I possibly could to save you,'" Robinson, a professional arborist, said.

Robinson had previous experience injecting hemlocks with the insecticide — at Kovacs's family cottage, on the Medway River in Queens County.

Professional arborist Scott Robinson is licensed to apply the insecticide that kills the hemlock woolly adelgid. He is seen here inoculating a hemlock on Sporting Lake Island. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

Kovacs's parents, Hungarian immigrants and Holocaust survivors, bought the land in 1972. "To own land was something that was important," he said.

Kovacs built the cottage, which is surrounded by hemlock, and it's there that his family has held a special connection to what he calls "a beautiful, majestic tree."

That land "just became our family place, even though my parents didn't get a chance to experience it, they would be very, very proud of what this place has become," he said.

When the hemlock woolly adelgid made its presence known around his cottage, "it was a devastating feeling," he said.

'Your efforts matter'

Robinson inoculated Kovacs's trees in the hopes of fighting off the pest — and mentioned that there was an old growth stand under threat at Sporting Lake. Robinson had been unable to grab the provincial government's attention, and asked Kovacs if he would donate a litre of insecticide toward Robinson's so-far solo cause.

Kovacs called him back a few weeks later with a promise to try and save the whole Sporting Lake stand.

"It finally hit the right ears," said Robinson.

Kovacs began rallying like-minded volunteers, with the end result October's big effort on Sporting Lake.

"You need to fight for things that are important," Kovacs said.

Forest ecologist Donna Crossland is one of Nova Scotia's leading experts on the hemlock woolly adelgid, and one of the volunteers who helped inoculate the stand on Sporting Lake Island. (Phlis McGregor/CBC)

Kovacs and the other volunteers ended up inoculating more than 2,000 hemlocks. It's not a long-term solution, but the volunteers hope it can bridge a gap until there's more tools in the arsenal against the adelgid.

"This was an example that people can come together and your efforts matter," said Kovacs. "In a time when there's so much negativity around the world and there's so much distress,  having people come together to do something incredibly good — it was magic."

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With files from Phlis McGregor

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