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Tales from the Forest: the American Chestnut

ConCradle educator Courtney Long found herself on a very well-loved trail in Pisgah National Forest. Although atypically warm for this late autumn afternoon, the colors remained mesmerizing. She was on the hunt for a very special find that a forest visitor discovered. She was seeking a tree that had once dominated forests of western North Carolina. A tree that once towered 100 feet above the forest floor and could reach widths of 10 feet: The American chestnut, or Castanea dentata. The sheer mass and abundance of these trees until mid-20th century had once allowed finding this species a breezy task. Now identification of these trees requires more attention. Catching her mind drifting into daydreams, Courtney reminded herself to keep a keen eye…

A quick history:

An estimated 4 billion chestnut trees once reigned eastern forests. For many species of wildlife chestnuts were a primary food source. Early settlers relied on the high quality wood, while the chestnuts were a source of income and livestock feed. Other parts of the tree were utilized for medicine and tanning. The American chestnut hosts many pests; including a root rot fungus, gall wasps, weevils, etc. (Note: the invasive Asian chestnut gall wasps were introduced in the 1970’s.) The rapid spread of the chestnut blight was most devastating, killing nearly the entire population. From the first discovery of the chestnut blight in 1904, some say 3.5 billion chestnuts were wiped out by the 1950’s. Today only small stands remain scattered, some with specimens as tall as 80-feet.

chestnuts-species-leaves

From L to R: American chestnut, Chinese hybrid, chestnut oak

Chestnuts today:

Although this Asian fungus kills the tree, it does not affect the root systems. Many American chestnuts found today are young and have sprouted from the root ball. The Cradle of Forestry Heritage Site has an example of this occurrence nearby the schoolhouse. Even though suckers from the root system survive, chestnuts take 7-8 years before maturing to bear fruit. Most suckers are infected with the blight before they reach this maturity. Hope persists for naturally resistant trees in the wild. 

This is why Courtney was tasked with seeking out an American chestnut sighting in Pisgah National Forest. The forest hiker noted a large specimen growing just off the trail and at his feet laid dozens of burs. “Surely people have noticed this. There are burs everwhere,” he insisted. “I wonder if it’s a chinquapin,” Courtney pondered as she recalled the phone conversation. Chinquapins are the cousins of chestnuts and bear similar, although smaller, burs and nuts. Courtney noted a couple of trailside chinquapins as she meandered higher in elevation. 

american-chesnut-leaves

Castanea dentata

Research efforts toward resistant trees:

The Backcross Method-Scientists use a series of backcrosses that maximize American genes and features while gaining resistance to the fungus. This process begins with a 100% American chestnut crossing with a 100% Chinese chestnut in order to obtain the blight resistant gene. These hybrids are continually crossed until a 15/16th American chestnut hybrid with resistance is grown. Seemingly healthy looking American chestnuts found in the wild are actually hybrids with the blight resistant Chinese chestnut. 

OXO Gene– A gene discovered in wheat encodes for an enzyme called oxalate oxidase (OxO). This enzyme is responsible for disease resistance in wheat and similar grasses. When transferred to the genes of American chestnuts, seedlings exhibit a resistance to the blight. 

A catkin, bur and nuts of an American chestnut

A catkin, bur and nuts of an American chestnut found in Pisgah National Forest, NC.

 “Ouch!” she yelped as she threw down the bur. Courtney had found several American chestnuts. Most looked unhealthy, either infected by the blight or powdery mildew on the leaves. Others had produced not just a handful of burs but possibly hundreds. Evidence of this nut as a wildlife favorite was found by the number of burs pried open and the nutrient rich prizes missing. Courtney had attempted to open one and resulted in a few needle pricks on her fingers.

Back in her office she prepped the samples and wrote down pertinent information the American Chestnut Foundation could use in positive identification. Shipped off to Asheville, she waited 5-6 weeks. 

How can you help?:

If you think you find a tree, follow the guidelines on the American Chestnut Foundation website and send in a leaf and twig sample. After testing, ACF informs you whether the tree found is a hybrid or 100%. This process can take a few weeks. If it is a fruit bearing tree, ACF may ask for you to collect chestnuts for them. These could aid in restoration research and efforts. This is a great impromptu activity with kids and teaches them ways they can be good stewards of their public lands. 

 

 

Peeling Back the Bark: FHS

The Gift of the Pisgah National Forest

 
 
October 17, 2016 by Jamie Lewis
 

On October 17, 1916, the Pisgah National Forest was the first national forest established under the Weeks Act of 1911. Written by FHS historian Jamie Lewis, this post was originally published in the online version of the Asheville Citizen-Times on October 14, 2016, and in print on October 16 to mark the centennial.

“When people walk around this forest … at every step of the way, they’re encountering nature, some of which has been regenerated by the initiatives of those generations they know not—they know nothing about. And I think that that’s ultimately the greatest gift: that you’ve given to them beautiful, working landscapes and you don’t know where they came from.”

Historian Char Miller closes our new documentary film, America’s First Forest, by acknowledging those who labored to create the Pisgah National Forest, which celebrates its centennial on October 17. We chose that quote because it simultaneously summed up the Pisgah’s history and looked to its future by implicitly asking who would carry on the work of the early generations in managing this national forest.

Miller is right. The Pisgah is a gift from many people—some whose names are familiar but many whose names are not. Most have heard of George Vanderbilt, or his Biltmore Estate. His greatest gift, however, was not to himself but to the nation. He hired renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design Biltmore’s grounds. Creator of New York’s Central Park and other urban green spaces, Olmsted saw in this project opportunity to give back to the nation, and through Vanderbilt a way to do so. In 1890, Vanderbilt needed a forester. America needed forestry. Olmsted advised hiring a professional forester who would demonstrate to America that one could cut trees and preserve the forest at the same time.

Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot, who then crafted the first-ever sustainable forest management plan in the United States. Pinchot later gave back to the country in his own way: in 1905, he established the U.S. Forest Service, providing the nation with an institution to manage its national forests and grasslands. But before leaving Vanderbilt’s employ in 1895, Pinchot did two things: he facilitated Vanderbilt’s purchase of an additional 100,000 acres, which Vanderbilt named Pisgah Forest, and he recommended hiring German forester Carl Schenck to implement his management plan.

Schenck’s “experimental” practices not only restored the forest but also improved its wildlife and fish habitat. This turned Pisgah Forest into a revenue source as well as a playground for its owner: a sustainably managed forest can provide all those things and more.

In 1898 Schenck established the Biltmore Forest School—the country’s first forestry school—to educate men wanting to become forest managers or owners. Many of the nearly 400 graduates also served in the Forest Service. The impact of Schenck’s gift is still seen on public and private forests today. Thankfully Congress preserved the school grounds as the Cradle of Forestry in America historic site.

On top, George W. Vanderbilt; next to him, his friend and physician, Dr. S. W. Battle; next, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt in her riding suit; lowest, Miss Marion Olmsted, daughter of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. (FHS356)

On top, George W. Vanderbilt; next to him, his friend and physician, Dr. S. W. Battle; next, Mrs. Edith Vanderbilt in her riding suit; lowest, Miss Marion Olmsted, daughter of the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. Photo taken in 1901 at Lookingglass Rock. (FHS356)

These men are not the only ones to thank for the Pisgah National Forest. In 1899 Asheville physician Chase Ambler mobilized citizens to protect the region’s scenery and climate. Pressured by conservation groups from the South and New England, Congress passed the Weeks Act of 1911, which empowered the federal government to purchase private land for the Forest Service to manage. This legislative gift pleased not only preservationists like Ambler by protecting scenery and recreation areas, but also conservationists because the land remained available for logging and other extractive activities.

In 1914 George Vanderbilt’s widow, Edith, sold Pisgah Forest for a fraction of its value in part to “perpetuate” the conservation legacy of her husband, and as a “contribution” to the American people. Pisgah Forest became the nucleus of the Pisgah National Forest, the first established under the Weeks Act, and Biltmore Forest School graduate Verne Rhoades became its first supervisor, in 1916.

But that is the past. The future of the Pisgah National Forest (and its neighbor the Nantahala) is being written now. The U.S. Forest Service is drafting a forest management plan to guide how it manages the forests for the next dozen or so years. At public meetings, the Forest Service has been hearing from citizens and groups like the Pisgah Conservancy to help it craft the forest’s future. Like Carl Schenck and Vern Rhoades before them, Pisgah’s current managers face great uncertainties, only now in the form of forest pests and disease, climate change, and a place so attractive that its visitors are “loving it to death.” Those who cherish the Pisgah for its “beautiful, working landscapes” can honor those who gave us that gift by continuing to sustainably manage it. That can ultimately be our greatest gift to future generations.

Normally the entrance to a national forest has a small sign with the Forest Service shield on it. This entrance to the Pisgah National Forest was a memorial arch constructed to honor the memory of the men of Transylvania County, North Carolina, killed in World War I. (U.S. Forest Service photo -- negative number 185843)

Normally the entrance to a national forest has a small sign with the Forest Service shield on it. This entrance to the Pisgah National Forest was a memorial arch constructed to honor the memory of the men of Transylvania County, North Carolina, killed in World War I. (U.S. Forest Service photo — negative number 185843)

The original post by Jamie Lewis can be found here

Peeling Back the Bark: FHS

The original post from “Peeling Back the Bark”  on the Forest History Society blog can be found here.

October 20, 1964: Cradle of Forestry Dedication Ceremony

On this day in 1964, foresters, government officials, and others gathered near Asheville, North Carolina, at the site of the historic Biltmore Forest School. At this joint annual meeting of the American Forestry Association and the North Carolina Forestry Association, officials laid the cornerstone of the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Information Center, dedicating the Cradle of Forestry in America.

The Cradle of Forestry was envisioned as a unique indoor-outdoor museum that would celebrate the significance of the Pisgah National Forest lands to the history of forestry in the United States.

  • Here, America’s first trained native-born forester, Gifford Pinchot, managed the thousands of forested acres owned by George W. Vanderbilt. Beginning in 1892, Pinchot initiated large-scale scientific forest management practices on the Biltmore and Pisgah lands.
  • Pinchot’s successor, Dr. Carl A. Schenck, opened the first forestry school in America. The Biltmore Forest School operated on the estate from 1898 to 1907.
  • Passed in 1911, the Weeks Law granted the federal government authority to purchase private lands for inclusion in national forests. Following the passage of the Weeks Law, several tracts of Vanderbilt’s land were among the first purchased by the U.S. Forest Service. Incorporating these tracts, a proclamation signed by Woodrow Wilson in 1916 officially established the Pisgah National Forest.

At the cornerstone-laying ceremony, Forest Service Chief Edward P. Cliff delivered remarks, which included a memorandum he drafted for a one-hundred year time capsule. Addressed to the Chief of the Forest Service in 2064, the memorandum provides interesting points to consider:

“I would like to glimpse the technological advances and the wealth of knowledge that you and your colleagues have at your fingertips. I know that it must surpass by far anything we can imagine here in 1964. Yet I am equally sure that you need all of these and more to solve what must be incredibly difficult and complex problems of forest management. . . .

“As a forester, my greatest hope is that in the decades which separate our careers, our people will have proved to be good stewards of our natural resources. It pleases me to think that each generation of foresters during this interval will have been able to build upon the work of their predecessors — just as your generation is benefiting from trees established, protected, and nurtured by us in the mid-Twentieth Century.”

The Forest History Society maintains materials related to this dedication ceremony, including newspaper clippings, event programs, brochures, and artifacts. Cleverly, the Cradle of Forestry planners printed maps and site information on litter bags given to visitors:

Perhaps the most “flavorful” part of the tour involves the description of the Student Quarters:

The materials featured above may be found in our U.S. Forest Service History Collection, under “Forestry Schools/Education: Cradle of Forestry.”

To support further research on the birth of American forestry, the Forest History Society holds several archival and image collections related to the Biltmore School, early foresters, the Forest Service, and lumber companies.  Such collections include:

Additionally, FHS has collaborated with N.C. State University, UNC Asheville, and the Biltmore Estate to present The Rise of American Forestry: From Education to Practice. I suspect Chief Cliff would be impressed by the “technological advances and the wealth of knowledge” at our fingertips.