November 24, 2017
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Revival of forest giant: Mainers work to bring back American chestnut

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Updated:

VEAZIE, Maine — Glen Rea walks with satisfaction and even affection along the rows of young American chestnut trees he helped plant 11 years ago in the Buck Hill Conservation Area.

Some trees are thriving, stretching their branches well above the head of the 73-year-old retired stockbroker from Bangor. Others look less healthy, with the telltale red dots of the dreaded chestnut blight fungus spreading lethally across their bark. But every tree in this small breeding orchard is important because each one has a part in a national effort to restore American chestnut trees, which were nearly wiped out a century ago by the accidental introduction of the chestnut blight.

“I’m like a grandparent,” Rea, who studied forestry at the University of Maine before switching careers, said of his pride in the Veazie trees. “Chestnut is such a wonderful tree to work with. It grows fast. It produces seed in seven years. It produces nice lumber. … We have built enough resistance into these trees that they can survive on their own in the wild.”

Before 1900, more than 4 billion American chestnut trees marched up the spine of the Appalachian mountains, an essential part of the ecosystem that provided what seemed like a limitless bounty of food and lumber. American chestnuts are smaller and sweeter than their European and Asian cousins and were an important source of food for humans and wildlife, including deer, bears, turkeys and squirrels. Chestnut wood, too, was valuable, both for its ability to withstand rot and for its straight grain. One tree could be turned into the log cabins built by early settlers.

“It was called the cradle-to-grave wood,” Rea, the northern breeding coordinator for the Maine Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, said. “Cradles, tables, beds, caskets, all were made of chestnut.”

Back then, the trees were immense. They could grow taller than 100 feet with diameters of up to 14 feet. A photo at Rea’s house from turn of the last century shows two Appalachian chestnut harvesters dwarfed by the giant trees they stood beside.

But when the fungal pathogen arrived, likely from chestnut trees imported from Japan or China, things changed fast. American chestnuts had no natural resistance to the fungus, which was carried by wind and wildlife from tree to tree over the first half of the 20th century until the entire species essentially was gone.

“It was very similar to when smallpox came to America,” Rea said. “It just wiped out the trees. Someone once said the loss of the American chestnut tree in New England is the biggest ecological disaster since the last glaciation.”

A few trees did survive here and there, and last summer University of Maine researchers found the tallest American chestnut in North America in a forest in Lovell, near the New Hampshire border. The discovery of the 115-foot tall — though slender — tree was thrilling to the people who are trying to bring back the species, Rea said.

However, the chestnut forests that were so important to the country were gone, and half-hearted government attempts to save the species through cross-breeding were stopped for good after funding was cut in 1960.

Enter the American Chestnut Foundation, a nonprofit group based in North Carolina that formed in 1983 with the goal of restoring the chestnut tree to the eastern woodlands.

“The foundation stepped in and said we can do this,” Rea said.

The group had the goal of breeding blight resistance from the Chinese chestnut tree into the American chestnut, while keeping the American tree’s characteristics. In Maine, where committed chestnut tree lovers already were working to try and bring back the species, volunteers joined forces with the national group in 1999. The Maine chapter is one of about a dozen state groups that use local trees in the breeding program to make sure that they will be adapted to the environment. So far, volunteers from the Maine chapter have planted 27,000 blight-resistant hybrid chestnut trees in seed orchards around the state and in the next few years plan to plant 27,000 more trees.

The seed orchards — located in such far-flung locales as Searsport, Stetson, Phippsburg, Winthrop, Lovell, Unity and Morrill — will be around for many decades to come, Rea said. That’s not the case with Maine’s American chestnut breeding orchards. Those plots, including the small one in Veazie, have functioned a little as a natural laboratory to see how well the trees do after volunteers like Rea inject them with the blight. The trees that don’t do well will be cut and burned, with only the stumps left behind to tell the story.

Al Faust, president of the Maine Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, said the volunteers in Maine have done a lot of important work with little financial outlay — about $20,000 to $25,000 per year, money that comes from mostly from donations and grants funneled through the national foundation. A lot of that is because of dedicated volunteers such as Rea, who estimates he spent about 800 hours last year, planting seeds and managing the breeding program by doing a range of jobs that includes doing controlled pollination.

“It’s incredible, the number of people from diverse backgrounds who are involved,” Faust said. “For very little money, we are getting a lot of powerful research.”

The men said they also are glad that younger scientists and student foresters are involved in the restoration effort, including students from the University of Maine, Unity College and the University of New England in Biddeford. Students from the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor also are planning to join the team, they said.

“We’re really setting the parameter for a species restoration, which hasn’t been done on this scale before,” Faust said, adding that hopefully the protocols that have been successful with the American chestnut can be used to help other species, too.

But Rea, who got hooked on chestnut trees after his wife gave him a membership to the American Chestnut Foundation in 2000, said he has remained so involved in the hard restoration work for a simpler reason.

“People just love the chestnut tree so much,” he said. “I’m an old man now. I won’t see much of this [come to fruition]. But 100 years down the road, it’s going to be just a different environment.”

For more information about the chestnut restoration work, visit me-acf.org.

 


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