It was on a hilltop in eastern Kentucky where I first met James and Gail Cope, looking at the 27 newly planted American chestnut seedlings on their land. It was our common love for this rare tree that brought us together.
American chestnut trees once dominated the Appalachian landscape, but during the early 1900s a fungus struck the trees causing them nearly to vanish. The American Chestnut Blight, an Asian fungus, first struck in 1904 in New York City and quickly spread, leaving in its wake a trail of dead and dying stems. By the 1950s, the keystone species of some nine million acres of forests had disappeared.
The tree is important because it produces bushels of nuts for wildlife, and animals like squirrels, wild turkey, white-tailed deer, black bear, and grouse depend on the nuts for a major food source.
The tree also has a history tied intimately with an earlier America. Commonly referred to as the “redwood of the East,” the American chestnut tree was used to build cabins and fences and feed hogs.
Through a Conservation Innovation Grant from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Cope family is working with the American Chestnut Foundation to plant the trees and study how to reforest them successfully.
This month, USDA is highlighting innovative agricultural and conservation efforts, and NRCS is currently accepting grant proposals.
The grant of $500,000 from NRCS has enabled the foundation to create research orchards, like the one on the Copes’ land. The forests consist of chestnuts, northern red oaks and white pines, and the goal is to find ways to out compete the white pines.
The American Chestnut Foundation was founded in 1983 by a group of plant scientists who recognized the severe impact the demise of the American chestnut tree had on communities, forests and wildlife.
The foundation started crossbreeding American chestnut trees with Chinese chestnut trees, which are naturally resistant to the blight. Once a half American-half Chinese tree was created, it was then crossbred with an American, resulting in a 75 percent American chestnut tree. These trees don’t have any Chinese characteristics, except for a resistance to the blight.
As a part of this grant program, the group or individual awarded the grant must work with farmers, ranchers and forest landowners. In this case, they worked with the Cope family to study and monitor chestnut growth.
The Copes’ enthusiasm made them a great candidate. Actually, James Cope still has the froe, a cutting tool, his grandparents used to split chestnut shake shingles and rails for split rail fences.
We’re excited and hopeful about the work underway at the Copes’ land. One of the things I most love about my country is that even in the bleakest of circumstances, there is always room for a miracle. For me, one of those miracles is the 27 tiny American chestnuts struggling on a hillside in eastern Kentucky.