The Post: Activists work to revitalize American Chestnut Tree

Volunteers needed to support the revival of the American Chestnut Tree, an iconic Appalachian tree gone nearly extinct in the Ohio Valley region.

One initiative to restore what many call the “Redwood of the east” in Wayne National Forest might have widespread implications in forests throughout the Eastern United States.

The American Chestnut was the backbone of the Appalachian frontier, used for cabins, barns and fences, but a fungus all but eradicated the species from Southeast Ohio forests by the mid-20th century.

Now local environmental advocates and an Ohio University assistant dean hope to bring it back to Wayne National Forest.

Brian McCarthy, Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at OU and president of the Ohio Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, has worked along with the United States Forest Service and the National Wild Turkey Federation for an upcoming project to revive the American Chestnut in the Ohio Valley region.

These groups, along with local volunteers, will plant 750 seedlings of a new genetic breed of American Chestnuts this coming October in the nearby national forest.

“There hasn’t been any plantings yet in Wayne National Forest of the American Chestnut, so we’re looking down the road,” McCarthy said. “It’s kind of exciting because it’s going to be the first big planting on the Wayne.”

Scientists say the American Chestnut was once a vital part of local forest ecosystems, particularly to the passenger pigeon which got most of its diet from the chestnut tree’s seeds.

“It was dominant, it was abundant, (and) it provided food for a number of different organisms,” said Harvey Ballard, an OU plant systematics and evolution associate professor.

Then came the attack of the invasive fungus, known as the Cryphonectria parasitica.

Accidentally imported from Asia, the blight completely annihilated the American Chestnut species throughout Appalachia.

“It came in around the Bronx Zoo around 1904, and by the early 1940s had spread all across the Appalachian Mountains, all the way down to the Mississippi (River),” McCarthy said.

By 1950, almost 4 billion of the American Chestnuts had been decimated by the pathogen, from Maine to the American South. Attempts in the mid-20th century to breed a new blight-resistant species were largely unsuccessful.

As a result, the American Chestnut Foundation was founded in 1983 to find, by either genetic cross-breeding or more traditional methods, a blight-resistant species of Chestnut to reintroduce into the eastern deciduous ecosystem.

After 30 years of study, the Ohio Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation is still itching for a solution.

McCarthy’s solution, the Backcross Breeding program, is a hybrid of an American Chestnut tree and a Chinese Chestnut tree, the latter of which carries the resistance gene.

Of the 750 seedlings to be planted at the Wayne, McCarthy said, 30 different genetic variations of the American Chestnut hybrid will be introduced on Oct. 25, in what’s commonly referred to as field trial stage.

“We’re planting to not only restore but to test the families,” Lee Crocker biologist with the National Wild Turkey Federation said. “To see which ones survive.”

If introduction is a success, the chapter would like to continue planting the blight-resistant species on other reclaimed Ohio lands, specifically abandoned mining grounds.

“There’s an enormous amount of land in Ohio that’s been damaged by mining — surface mining in particular,” McCarthy said. “We found that the (American) Chestnut actually grows very well on those damaged sites. And so, we’ve been working to restore the (American) Chestnut and bring back a functional forest on these reclaimed strip mines.”

McCarthy is hopeful for the trial’s success.

“It’s the forests that arguably keep us alive,” McCarthy said. “They’re the major producers of oxygen — it’s kind of important for us.”

This story also appears on The Post