Once a prominent phenomenon in southern Indiana, Bedford just experienced the first re-planting of American chestnut trees on the Hoosier National Forest in partnership with Purdue University and the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station.
“Historically, the American chestnut was once one of the most important trees in the eastern United States, occupying about 25 percent of the hardwood canopy in eastern forests,” said David Cleaves, climate change advisor for the Forest Service.
The trees grew to be 80 feet tall or more, and were known as ‘the redwood of the East.’ By the 1950s, the tree was nearly wiped out by an Asian fungus known as chestnut blight. The restoration of American chestnut to eastern forests depends on the development of blight-resistant seedlings.
The Forest Service, American Chestnut Foundation, and the University of Tennessee have been conducting research and tests to produce a blight-resistant American chestnut, with aspirations of restoring the species in its grandeur.
A traditional back-cross breeding method is being used to create blight-resistant American chestnut seedlings, which are 94 percent American chestnut and 6 percent Chinese chestnut — and are blight resistant.
The restoration effort began when the American Chestnut Restoration Project partners planted seedlings in three national forests in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina in early 2009.
Scientists say the seedlings are surpassing expectations of survival and they are cautiously optimistic. A full decade will need to pass before massive replanting begins. But the trees will be given every opportunity to do well. They were planted in a fenced enclosure to keep out deer and minimize damage from wildlife, and herbicides will be applied as needed to control undesirable competition.
The fenced enclosure was built with help from fire crews from the Ottawa and White Mountain National Forests as well as Hoosier employees. Ron Doyle planted the first blight-resistant American chestnut on the Hoosier National Forest, unofficially in honor of his father — a long-time member of the American Chestnut Foundation. His father, now in a nursing home, was very pleased to hear the trees were returning to Indiana.
Another Indiana site will be planted in 2012.