“Each generation takes the earth as trustees,” once said Julius Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day and Nebraskan pioneer. As an early settler, he recognized the importance of trees and established Arbor Day more than 135 years ago to encourage their preservation. Celebrated the last Friday in April, the day includes a tradition of planting trees as a symbolic gesture.
In the spirit of Arbor Day, this week we continued our efforts to help restore one of America’s greatest tree species – the American chestnut – by planting 60 chestnut seedlings with The American Chestnut Foundation (ACF). In 2011, our Big Island, Va., mill made a 20-year commitment to provide and manage a protected plot of land on which the ACF can monitor the saplings in a natural setting.
So why is this effort important? The species was devastated by the chestnut blight, a fungal disease first observed in 1904, and by the 1950s it was virtually wiped out of existence.
Dubbed the “mighty giant” because of its massive size – growing 100 feet tall and 10 feet wide in some cases – the American chestnut was once a vital part of our ecosystem and survival in early America. Its valuable hardwood was used for log homes and its bounty of chestnuts provided nourishment and even income for rural families.
Decades later, research has been dedicated to bringing the mighty giant back to life. Efforts have included crossing surviving roots with other disease-resistant tree “cousins,” but it’s an intricate process and set-backs continue.
Our Big Island site had 560 seedlings planted in February 2011. Since then, there has been some tree mortality due to a naturally occurring “water mold” called phytophthora that can lie dormant for years. A very wet summer at our mill site last year unfortunately created less-than-ideal conditions for the seedlings, but the research continues. The hope is to create a species with both American chestnut attributes and blight and phytophthora resistance.
We hope that one day the majestic American chestnut will be restored to its original habitat, and we would be proud to say we played a part in that effort.