Researchers are studying a fungus spread by an exotic insect that's

destroying The Great Smoky Mountains National Park's beech forests.

Kris Johnson, the park's vegetation management specialist, said the damage

being done by the beech scale is most evident along the Appalachian

Trail.

"In 1995 these trees were alive," said Johnson, who recently visited an

infested area west of Clingmans' Dome. "You don't think of how much beech

there is in the park until you get up here and see all this

mortality."

The insect is identified by a smattering of white specks, each no bigger

than a pinhead.

Johnson said the insect kills beech trees by punching tiny holes in the

bark. The holes promote the spread of a lethal fungus called beech-bark

disease.

The park service first discovered the beech scale in 1993 near Clingmans

Dome, the state's tallest mountain at 6,643 feet above sea level.

Since then the insect, and its associated disease, has spread throughout

the park's higher elevations, decimating whole stands of beech trees along

the mountains' crest.

Each year, Johnson said a park service crew maps 60 miles of high-elevation

trails to track the disease. In addition, the park service has 10 long-term

monitoring plots used to study the disease and its impact on the forest

ecosystem.

The beech scale larvae are spread by the wind and spend their adult stage

with their mouth parts stuck in the tree. They have no legs, so the adults

never move, Johnson said.