Questioning Why “It’s Supposed to Be Here”: Returning the American Chestnut to the L andscape
Questioning Why “It’s Supposed to Be Here”: Returning the American Chestnut to the Landscape
By Olivia Biller
You may not know of the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata), and for a good reason; in 1909 a fungal disease killed around four billion chesnut trees in forests that were recovering from intensive logging. For 30 years, the American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) has staved off the tree’s extinction from Maine to Georgia. The first phase of TACF’s initiative is complete; most state chapters have developed blight resistant trees. Now the foundation is preparing to restore American chestnut trees to forests. This transition calls for a critique of the organization’s structure and function. The foundation’s members should ask critical questions of their initiative to ensure that the impact of American chestnut restoration is environmentally and socially beneficial.
This past weekend, the Massachusetts-Rhode Island (MA-RI) chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation gathered for their annual meeting to recognize this year’s accomplishments and to address what’s next for 2014. Around thirty-five members and some curious newcomers gathered in the South Kingstown Land Trust barn in Wakefield, Rhode Island. Silkscreen images of chestnut reproductive organs served as a background for the day’s speakers: the ovaries are spring green, spiky burs that encase maturing nuts, and the catkin’s cluster of flowers is saturated with golden pollen that produces sperm cells. These organs are central to the Foundation’s blight resistant breeding program, which preserves local genetic diversity through breeding with mother trees that arenative to the region, flowering, and accessible for pollination. Kendra Gurney, regional TACF scientist, told me that “bringing back something that is as close to the native species as possible is desirable. It evolved here, it’s supposed to be here, and it’s our fault that it’s not here.”
As the foundation’s restoration project moves forward, scientists and volunteers should question why they believe that the chestnut is “supposed” to be here, especially in comparison to other trees threatened by disease in North America, such as hemlock, beech, oak, and elm. TACF should broaden their efforts to understand how American chestnut restoration can promote overall forest health. To do this, it is necessary to understand how the foundation’s project intersects with the goals of initiatives working to restore other trees endangered by disease, such as the Tennessee Hemlock Conservation Partnership. Collaboration between projects will promote solutions that emphasize the interconnectedness of multiple tree species, such as the Fagaceae Genome Project. This project sequences the genomes of the tree relatives oak, chestnut, and beech, in order to give scientists the tools they need to solve issues related to these trees.
One facet of MA-RI TACF’s agenda for 2014 is to establish seed orchards to cultivate blight-resistant nuts for forest reintroduction projects. This provides a special opportunity to build community with other environmental justice initiatives and to make chestnut reintroduction more socially beneficial. Currently, the organization is considering sites on land trusts, environmental education centers, and tree farms. TACF chooses partnerships with forethought, because as Kendra explained, “We are looking for management and care available for 30-45 years.. Orchard location determines who can be involved in the project, who has access to knowledge about chestnuts, and who has a stake in the future of chestnut restoration. Choosing a site with the most cross-pollination between individuals of all different backgrounds, such as an education or community center, seems ideal.
To emphasize the importance of who is involved with TACF, the organization should reflect on why volunteer citizen scientists are important to the project’s success, instead of keeping this research within the bounds of scientific expertise. Environmental scientist Dr. Leila Pinchot sincerely told me that, “you have probably started to notice that it’s a really wonderful community. It’s just as much about the people as it is about the tree.” Kendra agrees, “The volunteers I work with are really inspiring. It’s easy to feel good about what you do as work, when so many people are benefiting from it. And to be involved with such a cool story in the face of so many forest pests and pathogens…we’re actually at a point where it looks like restoration is possible.” Identifying whether volunteers are benefiting due to skill building, skill sharing, or contributing to research usually restricted to professionals will be useful as the foundation expands with their seed orchard initiative.
It is vital to understand the role that the Foundation’s volunteer base has made on the project thus far, and how volunteer momentum will continue in future decades after all those who witnessed healthy American chestnuts pass on. If the democratization of scientific knowledge and labor is what is valuable to TACF, then how can this effort become more inclusive for my generation? I believe a wonderful resource is the scientific creativity of critical minded college students. Just this year, a student of professor Charlotte Zampini at Framingham State University developed a protocol for testing chestnut leaves for blight resistance, so that the tree itself does not have to be infected. Additionally, Smith College established plots of hybrid chestnuts to research forest reestablishment and to let students take agency over the future of forest environments.
Looking to the future, Dr. Leila delivered the meeting’s keynote address on identifying appropriate sites and restoration strategies to confirm that chestnuts enhance and do not disrupt forest ecosystems. Dr. Leila’s most captivating point was that TACF “can find the perfect scientific way to plant a tree, on the best site…with the best seedling, but…we need to think about the social aspect: how does [chestnut restoration] fit into other land management goals?” Illuminating this point, Kendra argued, “If you’re into wildlife, it’s a great wildlife resource, if you’re into woodworking or sustainable building, it’s a rot resistant and easy to work wood, it’s good for carbon sequestration (to counteract climate change) because it grows quickly.”
To promote these cultural resources, TACF is looking to work with hunting stewardship organizations such as Massachusetts Fish and Game, as well as with large-scale environmental projects such as the reclamation of abandoned mines in Appalachia. Many communities in Appalachia, for example, practiced subsistence farmingthat depended economically on chestnut nuts and timber before the chestnut blight, and now live with the legacy of chestnut disappearance, as well as mountaintop removal mines and their associated environmental health effects. The needs of Appalachiancommunities must be put first and foremost if a longterm TACF collaboration is made.
I left the MA-RI TACF annual meeting with my assumptions challenged; never did I expect the group to be so socially engaged, or that I would go back for seconds to a buffet table lined plate to plate with potluck offerings such as pumpkin chestnut soup and chestnut blondies. TACF may be at a crossroads, but with self-reflection it has the potential to foster environmental justice in the Northeastern deciduous forests, and promote chestnut restoration as a template for other trees facing extinction from disease.