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Conservation Groups Join Efforts to Restore the Iconic American Chestnut Tree

Release date: June 18, 2024

On Friday, a group of conservation partners will wield wheelbarrows, woodchips, and shovels, as they prepare the earth to plant a collection of American Chestnut tree saplings at the Cousins River Fields & Marsh Preserve in Yarmouth

(June 13, 2024 – Topsham, Maine) – Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) will be working alongside the Maine chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF-ME) to plant 10 young American Chestnut trees at Cousins River Fields & Marsh Preserve, a newly protected 82-acre property in Yarmouth that includes a 25-acre field and a significant tidal wetland. The planting will take place Friday, June 14 from 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM. at Cousins River Fields & Marsh.

American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once the foundation of many eastern United States forests, shaping the structure and function of the entire ecological community it was a part of. It was among the largest, tallest, and fastest growing trees in forests from the Mississippi River, through the Appalachian Mountains, to the coast of Maine. However, in the late 1800s, blight was introduced on imported Japanese chestnut trees. Chestnut Blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) was discovered at the Bronx Zoo in 1904. By 1950, less than 50 years later, the American chestnut was rendered functionally extinct. The giants were gone, and the foundation of approximately 180 million acres of eastern forests disappeared. The loss of the American chestnut’s function has had cascading effects on the entire food web, dramatically altering population dynamics of the forest.

In their wake, we have been left with limited communities of a shrub-like version of the American chestnut. When faced with competition from soil microorganisms, the blight cannot survive underground. This has resulted in colossal root systems of the chestnuts sending out suckering sprouts. These sprouts typically succumb to blight before they can produce nuts. The nuts planted Friday were gathered last fall from rare surviving wild trees or their progeny. Many of the mother trees have since died but TACF volunteers have perpetuated the species and made breeding and future restoration possible.

In autumn, American chestnut burs would open and drop nuts, feeding bears, birds, chipmunks, deer, racoons, squirrels, and turkeys. The nuts were a major food source for the now extinct passenger pigeon. It is believed the blight of the chestnuts exacerbated the extinction of the pigeon. The trees’ leaves were a preferred food source for many insect and caterpillar species, which in turn, make food for fish and birds. Seven moth species, whose caterpillars exclusively ate American chestnut, are now extinct. Fallen leaves, heavy in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium, were a favorite of decomposers. This created an extremely nutrient rich soil foundation of the forest floor. The American chestnut shaped eastern forests and cultures alike.

The chestnut tree was fundamental to the livelihood and culture of Indigenous Nations throughout the chestnut’s range. The nuts were an important food source, and forests were managed for chestnut health. Members of many different Nations would burn low fires, not reaching the canopy, that dried the nuts and killed off chestnut weevils. Fires helped the chestnuts spread by suppressing competitive plant growth. This management supported chestnut abundance, and nuts became a diet staple. They were a reliable source of nutrition that could be stored as nuts and pounded into flour. These carefully tended chestnut groves were another important food source that European colonization stripped from Indigenous Nations. An ancient reciprocal relationship was severed as the United States forced Indigenous Nations throughout the chestnuts range off the land and the chestnut became functionally extinct.

European colonizers used the American chestnut in many ways. It has been referred to as “the redwood of the east” due to its extremely rot resistant, straight-grained wood. The wood was desirable for building furniture, fencing, foundations, flooring, railroad ties, and telephone poles, many of which still exist today. The ripening of the nuts coincided with winter holidays, and in the late 19th century railroad cars would overflow with chestnuts to be sold in major US cities.

What’s Next?

Restoration of the American chestnut tree would bring resistant and genetically diverse chestnuts back into their native range and reestablish their function in eastern forests. By assisting in the advancement of chestnut restoration, MCHT can help protect one of the most vulnerable plant species in America.

Maine is the northernmost end of chestnuts native range, with historically sparser populations. In more southern areas, with denser populations, blight spreads much more readily. This has resulted in Maine having more mature, wild flowering American chestnuts than any other state. We are planting their “wild type” seeds to preserve the native population of trees and the genetic diversity they possess. The trees planted on Friday will eventually succumb to blight, but they will hopefully produce more seeds before that time comes. As TACF works to develop a blight resistant American chestnut, the trees at Cousins River Fields & Marsh Preserve will keep the species alive and genetically diverse, in hopes that they can one day be cross-pollinated and produce blight-resistant offspring. Wild Maine chestnuts will be the mothers of blight resistant American chestnut trees.

Every few years, more trees will be planted to create a mixed-aged stand. This will offer training and meaningful roles for the next generation who will plant (and maybe eat) the nuts from these trees. Volunteers from TACF-ME will water and monitor the trees planted. This project will build the local community’s capacity for future larger-scale forest restoration.

 

EVENT DETAILS

WHEN: The tree planting will run Friday, June 14 from 10:00 AM – 1:00 PM.

WHERE: Cousins River Fields and Marsh Preserve, 223 Granite Street, Yarmouth, Maine 04096

WHAT: Maine Coast Heritage Trust, members of The American Chestnut Foundation, and members of the public will be planting 10 American chestnut seedlings.

 

ABOUT MAINE COAST HERITAGE TRUST

MCHT is a dynamic, multifaceted organization with initiatives ranging from preserving coastal access for communities to high impact ecological work focused on reconnecting waterways and improving coastal resiliency to climate change. A leader in Maine’s nationally renowned land conservation efforts since 1970, MCHT maintains a staff of more than 60 full-time and seasonal employees with an annual operating budget of $8.7 million. It also manages a growing network of almost 150 coastal and island preserves free and open to everyone and leads the 80-member Maine Land Trust Network to ensure that land conservation provides benefits to all Maine communities. Get involved at www.mcht.org.