Ohio Officials Hope Chestnut Trees Revive
Several hundred blight-resistant chestnut trees have been planted in Ohio in hopes of restoring a tree that is nearly extinct. State officials hope that thousands of acres of abandoned strip-mine land will serve as fertile ground for the tree's rebirth.
"There's a lot of land that could use chestnuts," John Sprouse, Ohio's abandoned mine lands field supervisor, said Monday.
At one time, the tree known as king of the forest ranged from Maine to Georgia and as far west as Indiana -- an estimated 4 billion trees. But the chestnut tree was devastated by an Asian fungal disease that began spreading in the early 1900s and tore through Ohio in the 1930s.
For the Ohio farmers of Appalachia, the chestnut had served as a cash crop, like tobacco. They shipped the nuts by rail to cities where they were roasted and sold on street corners as snacks.
Farm animals ate the fatty nuts and then fed the nation. Wild turkeys, bears and squirrels multiplied on chestnuts and in turn provided hunters with ample game. Experts believe the decline of the American chestnut thinned wildlife throughout the eastern United States.
Advances in plant biology and breeding have given the chestnut another chance at life, and test plantings of fungus-resistant trees have been planted in southeast Ohio. About 450 trees in all have been planted, in Perry, Muskingum and Coshocton counties.
There is evidence that the chestnut tree grows better than other kinds of trees in soils at abandoned strip mines. Some trees have trouble growing there because there is often little or no topsoil.
Researchers plan to study the trees as they grow.
"They're just budding out now," Sprouse said. "We'll find out."
Brian McCarthy, professor of forest ecology at Ohio University who also serves on the science cabinet of the American Chestnut Foundation, believes the return of the chestnut tree could have a powerful effect on wildlife.
"Chestnut is an extremely rich seed, high in carbohydrates and the fat that large animals need to over-winter adequately," McCarthy said. "Deer, wild turkey, bear -- these critters will pound down chestnuts in the winter. It could mean a lot in terms of survival and viability for a whole variety of wildlife."
It won't happen overnight.
McCarthy said that it would take 100 years for the American chestnut to again have the impact of a forest giant.
"Most people see 100 years as a lot of time, but as a tree biologist, I don't," he said. "It will take three generations to do it, but that will happen because there is a lot of enthusiasm around it."
Source: Associated Press