Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The American Chestnut

I don't often see my father-in-law excited.

Of German stock from upstate NY, Dave is stoic and hard, with a handshake that hurts.  He is a retired forester, having spent most of his life crashing around the Adirondack Park marking trees and surveying land for the state.  He has watched paper companies take more than they should for decades, using guidelines for tree harvesting that only apply in the lowlands, where trees grow a lot faster than up in the High Peaks.  He has witnessed species decline, the better tree specimens harvested and the worse left to reproduce.  While the Adirondack Park is as large as Massachusetts and in some ways a model of private/public cooperation, the tree stock is not in good health.  This situation has only augmented his curmudgeonly character.

Which was why over dinner last night I was so happy to see him, well, elated about the American Chestnut tree.

The American Chestnut used to cover the Appalachian Mountain range from New York to Georgia in such a density that people complained they could not walk up hill over the expanse of nuts.  When de Soto explored this area in the late 16th century, he proclaimed that wherever there are mountains, there are chestnuts.  These trees used to grow up to 120' tall, with base widths on average 4-7" in diameter.  Stump circles left by these giants indicate much larger diameters, up to 13' across.  The Chestnut also coppices well, a perfect ring of trees multiplying from a single felled stump.  The wood is rot resistant (due to high levels of tannin), light weight, hard, and as I have heard, beautiful for furniture.  It provided food for bear, deer, squirrels, etc..., and all the attending wildlife that in turn depended on them.  In fact, part of the reason for the extinction of the passenger pigeon was its loss of habitat: the American Chestnut.  The Scotch-Irish settlers of this region relied on the Chestnut for nuts to trade, food for pigs and wood for homes.
The American Chestnut was a keystone species of the region.

Tragically, in the early 20th c. Asian Chestnuts were brought to the US, and with them a blight.  The blight ravaged the American Chestnut, girdling young trees in the first five years of life.  Within fifty years, approximately 4 billion trees were killed, 99.99% of the American Chestnut population.  Wildlife populations collapsed, and an already poor people fell into desperate poverty.  The Appalachian peoples lost two of their major income streams (nuts and the pigs that fed on them), all in the midst of the Great Depression and World War II.  Today, only a few hundred trees remain over the original 200,000,000 range.  Literally every tree in the US is accounted for, registered by the federal government and monitored closely by volunteers.  Some have gone so far as to proclaim the collapse of the American Chestnut as the greatest ecological disaster to strike the world's forests in history.

For years, scientists have tried to create a transgenic variety of the American Chestnut that could resist the blight.  The American Chestnut Society has had some success interbreeding seedlings, trying to breed out the blight-susceptible gene, breed in a blight-resistant gene, and include all the great characteristics of the American variety.  They appear about five years out from their goal.  Also exciting to note, researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY) discovered that a gene from wheat would do the trick.  This new variety of American Chestnut can resist the blight.  SUNY scientists are now going through a regulatory review process with the USDA, EPA, and FDA, but in the meantime they are trying to grow ten thousand seedlings so they will be ready to start planting if/when approval comes.

In my lifetime I might see the return of this keystone species.

And this has Dave uncharacteristically happy...

It also seems that the American Chestnut Foundation is having some success breeding a blight-resistant strain.

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