Once in while, an opportunity arises to reverse environmental damage wrought by humankind. Such appears to be the case with SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s three-decades-long endeavor to restore to the landscape the majestic, near-extinct American chestnut tree. This promising effort now requires volunteers to succeed. Like church builders of the past, the enterprise requires long-range thinking, i.e., acceptance that one’s descendants, blood kin and otherwise, will be the ones to see the fruition of it all. It requires hope.
Only the eldest Americans recall when a pathogen delivered via late 19th century Asian traders wiped out approximately four billion American chestnuts between 1900 and 1950, creating unprecedented ecological devastation in North America. The towering tree — often reaching 300 feet high and seven feet in girth — had dominated the Catskills forest canopy and most of the eastern U.S. for millennia, significant not only to terrain stretching from Georgia to Maine, but to the overall ecosystem and regional economy. Celebrated for its fragrance by Thoreau in Walden, the American chestnut also provided copious food for both wildlife and humans, cash crops to farmers — nuts, bark, and timber — and straight-grain, fast-growing, rot-resistant wood prized for everything from houses, to railroad ties, to telephone poles. (Most Hudson Valley Victorians feature American chestnut doors, trim, and window frames. The wood is prized among high-end carpenters.) Scientists refer to it as a “keynote species,” an almost perfect tree. And unlike species decimated by other blights, the American chestnut, in fact, survives in living stumps and vast, unaffected root systems, as if waiting.
Cryphonectria parasitica, the fungus that took the American chestnut to the brink of extinction by strangling trees at their trunk base, also lives on. But SUNY-ESF scientists, led by Dr. William Powell and Dr. Charles Maynard, have successfully grafted wheat DNA onto the American chestnut genome, creating a transgenic, blight-resistant variation. Pending government approval, they are readying 10,000 seedlings to send to whoever wants to join the generation-spanning effort to resurrect “the redwood of the east.” In the meantime, they’ve teamed up with The American Chestnut Foundation in reaching out to communities and individual citizens to help pave the way.
Allen Nichols, president of the 700-member-strong New York chapter of TACF, is now sending volunteers “mother nuts” from original, non-altered American chestnuts. These trees still grow from stumps in the wild, but succumb to blight within a decade. The plan is to plant these “mother trees,” then place blight-resistant saplings nearby, so the species will cross-pollinate, creating genetic diversity, and ever-stronger American chestnuts. (Once the government gives the go-ahead, TACF members will get first pick of the transgenic trees, after which SUNY-ESF will send them to anyone.)
Laurens, NY-based Nichols has been part of the re-forestation process for 30 years, and has already sent 7000 nuts to 400 people. He’s enthusiastic about his role. “It’s immensely fulfilling,” he says, noting that when one pays the $40 fee to join the NYS chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation, “You’re not just donating money, you’re not standing back, watching the wheels. It’s necessary to get your hands dirty. And you’re handing down something to your kids, your grandkids, something beneficial that will be there for 200 years.” He’s planted a hundred trees in an orchard on his Otsego county property, and he monitors them closely, looking forward to the day his and others’ saplings can produce nuts hardy enough to rise again in the forest.
Nichols echoes all the well-known attributes of the American chestnut cited above, but also notes how efficient this particular tree will be to carbon sequestration, i.e. the process of capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to slow or reverse CO2 pollution and mitigate global warming. And he remarks how the American chestnut’s rot-resistance would render obsolete the toxic, arsenic-treated lumber routinely used as a modern building material. Stories abound of long-felled American chestnut trunks and boughs found in the wild that are virtually free of rot.
Nichols has been around long enough to see devastation to other widespread tree species, like the American elm and, most recently, the ash. “Every time you turn around, it’s another one,” he says ruefully. “Just think what it would look like if something struck the maples, or the apple trees.” But he’s reassured by the success of the SUNY-ESF program to bring back the American chestnut. “It’s amazing to think what this kind of technology can do for other species,” he says. “That’s really one of the best things about this. The science is moving so fast.”
While SUNY-ESF and The American Chestnut Foundation await government approval of their transgenic trees, Allen Nichols is happy to send non-modified “mother nuts” to anyone who wants to be part of working with both science and Mother Nature to resurrect the American chestnut. He can be reached at email@example.com, or by calling 607-263-5105.