The soaring, sweeping American chestnut, accurately nicknamed the Mighty Giant, was a majestic tree. Once it was the single most important food source for a wide variety of wildlife in the eastern United States, not to mention a cash crop for people in rural communities and an ideal source of strong, straight, durable lumber for everything from fence posts to fine furniture.
“It was an unbelievable tree,” says Bobby Maddrey, wildlife programs manager at Georgia‐Pacific. “It used to be the pre-eminent hardwood tree in the whole Appalachian chain.”
In the early 1900s, a fungus that causes chestnut blight was inadvertently brought in from Asia. The blight was first discovered in trees in New York and made its way down the coast, infecting billions of trees in 200 million acres of forest. By the late 1950s, the trees were all but gone.
“They used to make up about 25 percent of the trees of the hardwood forests of the mountains. It was a huge loss,” says Maddrey.
Georgia‐Pacific, in partnership with The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), is working to bring back the American Chestnut. In 2011, employees helped plant more than 500 seedlings on a plot of land near our mill in Big Island, Virginia, and the mill committed to managing the plot for 20 years.
These saplings aren't the same old American chestnuts. They've been “backcrossed” to varying degrees – the result of decades of work – with the blight‐resistant Chinese chestnut in hopes of creating a species that will hold its own against the fungus and still be as close as possible to the original.
“TACF was looking for places to do test plots to see how some of the latest progeny would do out in the wild. We had a perfect spot,” says Maddrey. The Big Island mill sits within the species' native range and even had old chestnut stumps on the property.
TACF monitors the trees' progress, while Georgia‐Pacific employees maintain the plot, occasionally recruiting Boy Scouts and other volunteers to help. They have replanted some of the seedlings that died due to soil and weather conditions. But the major task at this point, says Maddrey, is keeping briars from overtaking the area until the trees are more established.
Some of them now stretch to 30 feet. (American chestnuts can grow nearly 100 feet tall and nearly 10 feet in diameter). A tall fence keeps hungry deer away.
But it’s too soon to tell if the trees will succeed. “You have to wait them out and see if or when the blight is going to hit them,” says Maddrey.
If one of the hybrids proves a winner it could eventually be introduced into the Appalachian hardwood forest ecosystem where its forebears once reigned.
The American chestnut is just one of many species of plants and animals Georgia‐Pacific works to help restore or protect. We also have planted thousands of seedlings and dedicated hundreds of acres to help support the longleaf pine. Longleaf pine forests provide a habitat for at-risk animals such as the gopher tortoise and the red-cockaded woodpecker.
““Our whole business is dependent on a healthy forest because most of our products are made out of trees,...” says Maddrey. “It behooves us not only to help where we can but also promote good forestry practices. We like to get involved in programs and projects that help out whatever species might be in trouble in areas where we work.”
Georgia‐Pacific's goal in practicing sustainable forestry is to ensure a future that includes plenty of healthy, diverse forests.