W hile many individuals were gearing up for the annual Athens Halloween Block Party, others were partaking in a unique tree planting that is likely to leave a powerful and positive impact on future generations.
On Saturday, Oct. 25, Bobcats joined forces with The American Chestnut Foundation, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the U.S. Forest Service and many more in the planting of approximately 750 American chestnut seedlings, which contained 30 different family lineages.
The planting was a group effort to restore the nearly extinct American chestnut trees within the Wayne National Forest, while attempting to discover a cure for the severe disease called chestnut blight.
“What killed the American chestnut was a fungus, and the fungus was called chestnut blight. The fungus basically gets under the bark of the tree and it cuts off the trees ability to move fluids and nutrients up and down the tree,” explained Brian McCarthy, the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “So, basically it cuts off its food and water supply, and so trees die from the chestnut blight.”
After a harsh history of suffering and death from the blight disease that dates back to the 1930’s, there may finally be hope for recovery of the American chestnut tree due to this planting, or progeny test.
“This is the first test going into Southeast Ohio that is what we call a progeny test.” said McCarthy. “TACF has all of these different sort of genetic lineages that they’ve created of American chestnut.”
According to McCarthy, the goal of the chestnut tree planting was to plant these genetic lineages, or family lines, to help find out which lineage will be the most resistant to the blight.
And on Saturday, nearly 70 people joined together to do just that.
Within the Wayne National Forest was a bare plot of land about three acres in size containing what McCarthy referred to as an “eight-by-eight design.”
“There’ll be one member of each family planted in a row and they’ll be eight feet apart in the row. The distance from row to row will also be eight feet,” described McCarthy.
The holes were already marked and dug, so it was up to the many students, faculty, organizations and residents to finish the project by planting the one-year-old seedlings, which amounted to about 10 seedlings per person.
In the end, the goal is to monitor which lines are the most resistant to blight and leave “the largest number of surviving chestnuts,” said McCarthy. “So, in a way, what we’re doing is essentially natural selection, but we’re doing it. It’s human induced natural selection,” he added.
Participants gathered together in teams of three to attack each row after the proper planting technique was explained.
“It’s a good way to meet people and network a little bit,” McCarthy said to the group after asking the contributors to disperse into units of three.
For students like Brandon King and Bailey Hunter, this event proved to be a great way to meet others within their chosen field of study while gathering together to save the American chestnut tree and gain hands-on fieldwork experience.
King, secretary of Hocking College’s student chapter of The Wildlife Society, mentioned that not only was this event a way for his chapter to spread the word of wildlife conservation, but it also served as a great resume builder. “It gets your foot in the door for job opportunities,” he continued. “You make a lot of references. That can be the biggest part of landing a job.
“There’s no class for tree planting,” said King. “It’s a feeling that you won’t get any other way.”
Hunter, an OHIO graduate student studying science in environmental and plant biology, had a more intimate connection to the American chestnut.
“I study American chestnuts so I’m trying to get involved with the American chestnut stuff around here,” Hunter said after mentioning that her thesis revolved around the specific tree.
“There’s probably twice as many people than I thought was going to be here,” added Hunter. “I think it’s awesome because it shows that people care about the American chestnut. It’s a good sign that maybe there is hope.”
Gary Chancey, public affairs officer and volunteer coordinator of Wayne National Forest, agreed that the planting would help benefit and prepare students for their future careers. “This is a good opportunity to get introduced to natural resource work in the field,” he said. “We’ve got people that are working for us now that graduated from Hocking College and Ohio University.”
Chancey also mentioned the great partnerships that arose from the American chestnut tree-planting project, including OHIO, Hocking College, Miami University and several organizations. “Everybody has a common interest today,” he continued. “They care about the future of the American chestnut tree.”
Individuals and groups traveled short and far distances to help save the American chestnut tree, and for many different reasons.
Lee Crocker, a member of the NWTF, explained the importance of the tree for his particular organization.
“Historically it was an extremely important food for wild turkeys. One of the reasons is the American chestnut typically has a good crop of nuts every year.” Crocker said. “We want our turkeys and other wildlife to be healthy going into the winter, so any way they can fatten themselves up and be prepared for the winter makes for a better population.”
David Rosenthal, assistant professor of plant biology, attended the event with different purposes in mind.
“Part of my research involves understanding the response of these hybrids to environmental stress,” said Rosenthal. “One of the reasons that we’re doing this site here is to see the resistance to the blight. Another is to understand which of the genotypes that resist the blight would be better for Ohio, or Vermont, or Georgia. The climates are different.”
Rosenthal will continue making measurements of the tree’s responses to climate change throughout their future growth.
The professor also had another, more personal reason for joining in on the planting. “One of the reasons I came, too, is [because] I really wanted to demonstrate to my daughter what tree planting was about,” said Rosenthal. “She was very excited to come here and plant trees.”
Steve Stone, a member of TACF, had a similar yet distinctive story.
“The national forest is my neighbor. I’m surrounded by them, they’re a good neighbor. We’ve been here and our family’s been here on that farm for 100 years and when my dad was young there were no trees here, there was no national forest,” said Stone. “We were here before the national forest and it’s nice to see what the forest service has done to restore and bring the forest back.”
The American chestnut tree planting project was just one more attempt at restoring the original forest.
“The chestnut tree’s a wonderful tree,” exclaimed Stone. “It’s almost extinct and if we can bring them back from extinction that’ll be a miracle. Absolutely a miracle.”
Like Rosenthal, Stone arrived at the event with an additional, smaller set of helping hands.
“He’s shown and demonstrated a real interest in forestry. He helped me with maple sap collection – maple syrup – and he goes to the forest with me every once and a while,” said Stone in regards to his mentee, Brandon Mayle.
Mayle is a sixth grade student attending Morgan South Elementary School. When asked what he thinks about his first-ever chestnut tree planting, Mayle said, “I think it’s fun. I like planting and being outside.”
Stone explained that the American chestnut tree restoration is about more than just planting trees or bringing the American chestnut back from near-extinction.
“Planting a tree is the ultimate statement of belief in the future. You plant a tree that people that you’ll never know may sit under someday,” said Stone.
“A teacher’s influence never ends, even after the teacher ends. The people that they teach will carry on what they taught them and what they taught will live on forever, it’ll be passed on.” continued Stone. “It’s a way to ensure your own immortality – planting a tree and teaching somebody about it.”