Before being stricken by a blight early last century, chestnut trees were abundant. According to the American Chestnut Foundation, "& a count of trees [within its range] would have turned up one chestnut for every four oaks, birches, maples and other hardwoods."
Gifford Pinchot, who helped Theodore Roosevelt found the Forest Service and became its first chief, recalled seeing chestnut stands with trees 13 feet across and crowns spreading more than 120 feet above the forest floor. Charles Grossman, who was one of the first rangers at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, recorded a chestnut tree 9 feet, 8 inches in diameter at a point six feet off the ground. Grossman wrote about the tree, and the spring 1999 issue of The Journal of the American Chestnut Foundation resurrected his words:
"The hollow portion is so large that [an adult] could stand up in it. This hollow runs more than 50 feet up the trunk, and at its narrowest point is not less than three feet."
The loss of the American chestnut tree was devastating. A fungus accidentally imported to the U.S. in the early 1900s spread quickly and virtually wiped out all American chestnut trees by the 1950s. Today, few people remember that chestnut trees dominated the eastern forests from Maine to Indiana to Mississippi to Georgia — nearly 200 million acres.
Although the American chestnut was largely eliminated, remnant populations can still be found. Some of the remaining trees grow large enough to produce nuts, but are eventually killed by the blight.
The blight of the American chestnut touched the lives of millions of people — loggers, sawyers, furniture makers, folks who gathered the nuts as a cash crop and people who just enjoyed eating roasted chestnuts. The loss of the American chestnut was also a tragedy for wildlife.
"Turkeys disappeared, and the squirrels were not one-tenth as many as they were before," said Walter Cole, of east Tennessee.
Will Effler, who grew up on the West Fork of the Little River in what is today the Great Smoky Mountains and was quoted in The Journal of the American Chestnut Foundation, recalled shooting a wild turkey that contained no fewer than 92 chestnuts.
Great for wildlife
Wild turkeys are adaptable and have flourished in the absence of chestnuts. Many biologists believe, however, that wild turkeys would increase if the chestnut returned.
Before it's demise, chestnuts provided an easy living for wildlife in the fall. The prolific chestnut reportedly "produced many millions of bushels [of nuts] in hundreds of thousands of square miles of the eastern United States." In fact, a mature American chestnut tree could reliably produce as many as 6,000 nuts per tree, each year. In contrast, white oaks produce approximately 1,000 nuts per tree and red oaks produce about 2,000 nuts per tree, and neither family of oaks produces acorns reliably.
Chestnuts also provided wildlife a high-energy food that contains roughly 11 percent protein compared to oaks that average 6 percent. Chestnuts also contain around 16 percent fat and a whopping 40 percent carbohydrates.
Return of the Chestnut?
Established in 1983, the American Chestnut Foundation is focused on restoring the tree to its native range. In 1984, the ACF began using controlled pollination to breed blight-resistant trees. Starting with a cross between Chinese chestnuts (the source of blight resistance) and American chestnuts, the ACF staff and volunteers are creating seedlings that resemble American chestnuts by crossing back to American chestnuts again and again. Each generation is inoculated with the blight, and only the most resistant trees are used in future crosses. Staff of the ACF are hopeful the back-cross breeding program will produce trees that are genetically American chestnut except for one characteristic: they are resistant to chestnut blight.
The NWTF supports the ACF and, to the tune of $5,000, has helped fund some of the ACF's research. Funds from the NWTF are aiding studies in the ACF's regional adaptability program, which collects pollen from chestnut trees living across its former range.
When and if a blight-resistant tree is established, the challenge to successfully re-establish American chestnuts will start. The Kentucky State Chapter of the NWTF is using Super Fund dollars to help fund research through the USDA Forest Service and the University of Kentucky's Department of Forestry to examine how to manage our forests to aid the restoration of American chestnuts.
Can we grow a blight-resistant American chestnut and re-establish it? The jury is still out, but the funding from the NWTF and hard work by the ACF, the USDA Forest Service and researchers at the University of Kentucky are working toward the goal of returning the American chestnut to the eastern U.S. If successful, it will be a conservation success story almost as great as the return of the American wild turkey.
For more information on the ACF write: The American Chestnut Foundation 469 Main Street, P.O. Box 4044, Bennington, VT 05201-4044, or on the web at www.acf.org.
Material from the National Wild Turkey Federation.
Visit the web site at www.nwtf.com