Coffee Hour: Restoring the American Chestnut

Friday, February 1, 2013 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm
3:30 p.m. Refreshments are offered in the E. Willard Miller seminar room, 319 Walker Building • 4:00 p.m. The lecture begins at 4:00 p.m. in the John J. Cahir Auditorium, 112 Walker Building

Restoring the American Chestnut:  Considerations on the Reintroduction of a Species Effectively Removed for Over a Century

Once the mighty giants of the eastern forests, American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) stood up to 100 feet tall, and numbered in the billions. They were a vital part of the forest ecology, a key food source for wildlife and an essential component of the human economy. In 1904 the fungal pathogen, accidentally imported from Asia, spread rapidly through the American chestnut population. By 1950 it had killed virtually all the mature trees from Maine to Georgia. Several attempts to breed blight resistant trees in the mid-1900s were unsuccessful.

Current efforts to breed blight-resistance into American chestnut appear to be successful and attempts to study reintroduction of the species to its original range have now started with a small series of preliminary plantings.  But the Appalachian forest ecosystem that made up the majority of this species’ original range is much different now than it was over 100 years ago when American chestnut was often the dominant species of a stand.

New invasive and exotic competing species, introduced diseases and pests, ravenous and excessive deer herds, overdevelopment, and threats of climate change, just to name a few, face a species made effectively dormant by a fungal disease that continues to exist in rampant amounts throughout the chestnut’s homeland.

Given all those hurdles, one might think working toward chestnut restoration is simply a setup for defeat.  Thankfully, there are some very reachable milestones that, when combined, can make restoration a more conceivable goal.  By conserving as much native diversity as possible, modeling the best habitat for reintroduction, and creating an effective deployment strategy, populations of American chestnut could be self-sustainable, despite changing pressures, within the next 50–100 years. 


 About the speaker

fitzsimmons.saraSara Fitzsimmons  started working with the American chestnut as a Duke Stanback Intern in the summer of 2000.  Then hired full-time at Penn State in 2003, Sara has worked as a contact for chestnut growers and researchers throughout the mid-Atlantic.  Born and raised in southern West Virginia, Sara obtained her bachelor’s degree in biology from Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.  She then received a master’s degree forest ecology and resource management from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.  After a short stint as assistant editor of All About Beer Magazine, Sara returned to the forestry field, where she has been ever since.