Big trees are cool, I don’t care where they are or what kind. You know they’d have a story to tell if they could, and some tell it anyway via rings, scars, and people. Big, pure American chestnuts in the East are exceedingly rare and valuable and somewhat of a mystery since they should never get big due to the chestnut blight. These trees are often targeted for use in the TACF breeding program just in case there is something in their DNA that allowed them to resist the blight. Recently, New England Regional Science Coordinator Kendra Gurney showed me what is thought to be the Vermont champion American chestnut a short drive down I-89 from Burlington. This was one impressive tree with a massive crown that clearly dominated. I was astounded to hear that they believe the tree is only 50 years-old! It’s no wonder that chestnuts dominated the eastern forest at one time, few trees can outcompete it for growing space and sunlight.
The first year of planting on the Flight 93 Memorial reforestation project is in the books. What an experience. The National Park Service and the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative did an absolutely outstanding job of organizing the hundreds of volunteers and thousands of trees into a well-oiled machine. There were 160 volunteers the first day. My team included a TACF member from Columbus, OH, students and staff from Penn State – Altoona campus, and a young man from Morgantown, WV. I’d never met any of them – they were great. I also wandered among the groups of planters scattered across the hillside handing out 30 chestnuts to be planted. The second day, TACF CEO Bryan Burhans and I started the day handing out a few dozen more chestnuts, which allowed us to meet and talk with dozens of volunteers. We had the great privilege of working with folks from BMW, who lost a co-worker on Flight 93. They came from New Jersey and South Carolina to plant trees in honor of their colleague. The third day, several TACF volunteers traveled a long ways to help us plant. I led a team from diverse backgrounds who just wanted to give something to this effort. They worked hard in high winds that made it feel like it was zero. I was greatly affected by the whole thing. I recommend it to anyone, and there will be plenty more chances.
After more than a year of planning and preperation, the reforestation of the Flight 93 Memorial grounds will begin April 20 with an army of volunteers and partners planting thousands of trees. The Flight 93 Memorial is completely surrounded by reclaimed minelands, which offers an unusual (for PA) green, grassy landscape in the summer, but a stark, windy landscape the rest of the year. Led by the National Park Service and the Office of Surface Mining – Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI), this initial planting will cover 20 acres and is designed to provide some protection from the wind that howls across the treeless landscape. Eventually, 120+ acres will be reforested, with other areas left in grass and shrubs to provide some scenic vistas and habitat diversity.
The partnership that the reforestation represents is impressive and the partners are too numerous to list. Both public and private partners are donating tens of thousands of trees and labor in the form of volunteers. TACF is providing a crew leader, who will help direct volunteer, as well as several planters. TACF will also provide 75 of our 15/16 American chestnut seedlings this year. We will continue to supply seeds or seedlings to this effort as it expands. TACF salutes the Park Service and ARRI for the incredible job of managing the logistics of this project. There will be nearly 180 volunteers involved on the first planting day!
Phase I of the Memorial project was the actual, man-made Memorial dedicated on Sept 11, 2011. We hope that Phase II is an additional blessing to the families of those who died there on September 11, 2001.
Two weeks ago, I got my fist tour of The American Chestnut Foundation’s Meadowview Research Farm in southwest Virginia, not far from Abingdon. Even as you walk or ride among the rows and rows of chestnuts, the whole idea of Meadowview seems pretty improbable. The vast majority of the 120 acre farm and its research facilities was purchased by individual donors. Hundreds of thousands of trees and nearly 30 years later, TACF now has trees that are 94% American chestnut and blight-resistant. The hundreds of thousands of trees that have contributed to this effort have been tracked individually. TACF now has 300+ associated chestnut orchards throughout the eastern half of the U.S. that continue the model of breeding created at Meadowview. All major accomplishments that seem almost unbelievable, but one determined step at a time with a dedicated corps of donors, volunteers and professionals is how we got here. They had a plan and they worked it to perfection so far. Here’s to the next 30 years of miraculous achievement.
It’s not that I hadn’t considered it, but it really struck me recently as I stood looking out over the heavily forested mountains of western North Carolina – “How the heck will chestnuts ever gain a foothold in these extensive, mature forests of the Appalachians?”. Few places in the East have so much contiguous mature forest as the southern Appalachians from western VA to northern GA. Various social and political pressures have led to far less management of southern hardwood forests than in the past. The result is a rather homogenous, middle-aged forest. Even if this were not the case, any management done now would not really influence chestnut reintroduction, say, 10 years from now, anyhow. So as we get really serious about reintroducing chestnut to forested settings, forest management that allows sunlight to reach the forest floor to stimulate the natural regeneration of a young forest will go hand-in-hand with chestnut reintroduction. Then, hopefully, nature will take care of the rest.
TACF had a great restoration event at the Carter Center in Atlanta on February 16. It was well attended and very well done by the GA Chapter. Of course, we were honored to have former President Jimmy Carter and Mrs. Carter in attendance.
Since I had never met a President of any standing, I was prepared to chat it up with President Carter. After all, he wrote a whole chapter in one of his books about a guy I know very well, and he has been fishing for decades the same waters I grew up fishing in central PA. We were gonna bond, I was sure of it. Call me naive because that’s what I was. They don’t feed a man of President Carter’s age and fame to the wolves at public functions, and rightly so. His entrance and exit were tightly controlled to limit the stress on he and Mrs. Carter, and it was really perfect. As he left, he had to walk by my seat, so I stood, shook his hand and thanked him for coming. I’ll take it!
President Carter spoke with great authority on his affection for chestnuts and the TACF mission (see picture). He was impressively sharp and never missed a beat with no notes. We really appreciated the fact that he cared enough to come and speak.
So President Carter, maybe I’ll see you on the trout waters. Thanks for supporting TACF!
This week, longtime Secretary of the TACF Board of Directors Essie Burnworth died of cancer in Washington state. I barely knew Essie, having met her only last April, but to know Essie at all was to love her.
I took Essie to the airport in Buffalo in late October following TACF’s annual meeting where she was honored for her years of service and bid a fond farewell, as she was relocating to the Seattle area from Maryland to be closer to her grandchildren. I don’t believe at the time she knew she had cancer.
I considered taking Essie to the airport an honor then, but even more so now as it occurs to me I was one of the last, if not the last, TACF person to see Essie. During our drive to the airport, Essie asked me about my family and told me about hers. She gave me some advice based on her experience. Essie oozed wisdom. How I wish I had really known Essie Burnworth. How I hope that her grandchildren really knew her. I’m certain they loved her.