You may start out wanting to talk to Leila Pinchot about a U.S. Forest Service icon, but the great granddaughter of Gifford Pinchot has much more to say about the future of another legend, the American chestnut.
One of the seminal figures in world conservation, Gifford Pinchot founded and served as the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. The eastern forests we know today are distinctly different than the forests Gifford Pinchot would have known 100 years ago – they are missing the American chestnut, which dominated forests in the eastern United States.
Once called the sequoia of the east, the massive tree grew fast and could reach heights of 140 feet. American chestnut not only provided a seemingly endless supply of rot resistant wood, its fruit also fed inhabitants of the eastern United States for millennia. A non-native fungus caused the chestnut blight that killed an estimated 4 billion trees by the middle of the 20th century.
“My great grandfather’s legacy is something I grew up knowing and respecting, but my parents’ conservation ethic is something that I have always lived,” said Leila Pinchot, who just began a 1-year position as a research fellow with the Pinchot Institute for Conservation and is collaborating with the Forest Service on research for large-scale chestnut reintroduction. “My parents’ message was that our actions always have impacts – on the environment and on people – and we have to always be mindful of that.”
Pinchot is working on familiar ground. Milford Experimental Forest was established in 1900 by Gifford Pinchot’s father, James Pinchot, near the family’s ancestral home, Grey Towers which is now a national historic landmark and a center for conservation education and leadership.
For Pinchot, successful reintroduction of the American chestnut will come in the form of many small plantings established on private and public lands throughout the Northeast.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see chestnut recover its role as a dominant tree species in the northeast,” Pinchot said. “Chestnut really benefitted from the overharvesting of forests by European settlers, and forests have changed since the chestnut blight. They are older and managed more wisely. I foresee chestnut becoming an important, however less abundant, species in our northeastern forests.”