Monday, October 18, 2010

American chestnut trees may gain new life on reclaimed strip mines in Appalachia

The American chestnut tree, long a staple in eastern U.S. forests before virtually disappearing by 1950 after being affected by a foreign blight, may be poised for a comeback. "By interbreeding the American with its Chinese cousin, tree lovers have created an American chestnut with some resistance to Asian blight and have developed a virus that can be injected into affected trees to combat the fungus," Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post reports. The project has planted 25,000 new chestnuts so far.

"If the hybrid plantings thrive, some envision huge tracts of strip-mined Appalachia one day being restored with lovely chestnut forests," Eilpern writes. Even with early success it may take 75 to 100 years to determine if the tree can be reestablished to its former prominence, Bryan Burhans, president of the American Chestnut Foundation, which has led the revival efforts, told Eilpern. "We know we're interbreeding resistance [to the blight]. Now we have to figure out, does it have enough resistance?" he said.

"A fast-growing, hardy tree that thrives on rocky and acidic soil, the American chestnut served as an economic engine for Appalachia," Eilpern writes. "Families fattened livestock with its nuts and used its wood for fuel, railroad ties, fence posts, musical instruments and furniture." The chestnut blight was first identified at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, and by 1950 scientists estimated only 50 to 100 trees remained. Most of the 25,000 new chestnuts planted have been grown on reclaimed strip mines. "Surface mines may make the best springboard for the American chestnut back into the Eastern forest," Patrick Angel, a senior forester at the Office of Surface Mining who is helping to oversee the effort, told Eilperin. "The natural range of the American chestnut and the Appalachian coal fields overlap perfectly." (Read more)

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