At Old Coal Mines, American Chestnut tries to make a comeback

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ohio – Michael French trudged through a thicket of thorns, unfazed by the branches he sometimes had to sweep to a quiet spot on hilly land once mined for coal. Now, however, it is patched with bright yellow flowers and long green-yellow lawns dotted with sycamore trees.

He conceded that the scene seemed unimpressive to most people. However, it may be Mr. French’s most prized achievement. For him, the saplings represent what could be an important return to some of the country’s disappearing forests, and for one tree in particular, the American chestnut.

“I don’t see it the way most people see it,” he said. “I look at this and I see what it will be like in 80 to 100 years.”

By then, Mr. Phap envisions that the chestnut, a beloved tree almost wiped out a century ago by a fungus that causes blight, will be among the species that make up an indigenous forest. vast land.

Billions of chestnuts once dominated Appalachia, with Americans for generations relying on their sturdy tree trunks to make log cabins, floor slabs and telephone poles. Families would store the tree’s small, brown nuts in their lofts to eat during the holiday season.

Now, Mr. French and his colleagues at Green Forest Work, a non-profit group, hope to support decades-long effort to revive the American chestnut by returning the tree to the former coal mines of Appalachian. Decades of mining, which has contributed to global warming, has also resulted in a dry, acidic and parched earth that makes it much harder to grow beyond herbaceous plants and non-living grasses. living.

Like coal continues to fall and many of the remaining mines have ceased to function well, foresters say the restoration of mining sites is an opportunity to demonstrate that something can be made from lands that have been degraded by decades of mining activity, especially at a time when trees increasingly valued for their climate benefits. Forests can capture planet-warming emissions, create safe harbors for endangered wildlife species, and make ecosystems more resilient to extreme weather events like flood.

The researchers say that the chestnut is well suited for this endeavor because the tree’s historical extent overlaps “almost perfectly” with the former coal-covered terrain stretching across the eastern portions. Kentucky and Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

Another advantage of restoring mining sites this way, says Carolyn Keiffer, is that chestnut trees prefer slightly acidic growth material and they grow best in sandy and well-drained soil that is not too wet. conditions are almost suitable for previously exploited land. a plant ecologist at the University of Miami in Ohio.

Since 2009, Green Forest Work has helped plant more than 5 million native trees, including tens of thousands of chestnuts, on 9,400 acres of harvested land. During that time, the group has gathered supporters, including U.S. Forest Service rangers trying to reintroduce red spruce back into the national forests of West Virginia, and public companies. The bourbon company cares about the sustainability of the white oaks used in casks to store and age the whiskey.

“We, humans, have brought in the unnatural tree-killing fungus, referring to a parasitic fungus that happened to be introduced to North America in the late 1800s on imported Japanese chestnuts,” said Dr. Keiffer. .

After that, land extraction made it nearly impossible to naturally grow back into the forest as it once was, she said. “Perhaps we can be the ones bringing back the tree.”

That call has always motivated Thomas Brannon, even as a third-grader in the 1940s, to plant trees with his siblings on his family’s estate in eastern Ohio, which Mr. visit in August.

“If I could make those 230 acres look better, that would be enough for me,” Brannon said.

His grandparents sold mining rights to portions of the property in 1952, and nearly four decades later in coal mining.

In 1977, the federal government passed the Surface Mining and Mining Control Act, which required mining companies to return land to its pre-mining condition.

As a result, the mining companies will fill the excavated soil, packing rock material tightly into the hillside so it doesn’t cause landslides, said Scott Eggerud, a ranger with the Office of Surface Mining and Mining, the food agency. mining law enforcement, said. To prevent erosion, mining companies will plant aggressive, mostly non-animal grasses that can tolerate compacted soil.

From the 1980s to the early 2000s, an estimated one million acres of formerly forest land in Appalachia were reclaimed in this way as “heritage” lands.

In theory, compacting the soil and greening it quickly is a good idea, in terms of preventing erosion and water pollution, says Sara Fitzsimmons, conservation director at the American Chestnut Foundation. But reforestation becomes difficult.

Planters have described early efforts to replant those heritage sites as “planting trees in a parking lot.”

When Green Forest Work arrived at the Brannon estate in 2013, they focused on fixing some of the damage done to the land, sending giant tearing bulldozers to dig 3 to 4 feet into the soil, tilling the soil. and pull up the rock.

By spring, the team had planted 20,000 seedlings, a mixture of 20 different native tree species including American chestnuts, Virginia pine and a variety of oaks.

They also planted 625 chestnuts in a one-acre space that they call a progeny test to assess the health of the hybrid chestnuts – American fifteen-sixteen and Chinese chestnuts. National Sixteen – bred by scientists at the American Chestnut Foundation, a non-profit organization. The group was founded in the 1980s.

Chinese chestnuts have co-evolved with fungi, making them resistant to the effects of blight. The scientists then infected the part-American and part-Chinese chestnuts with fungi to pick out the surviving nuts. Then they repeat that process for generations.

“We ended up with a chestnut that looked more like an American chestnut but retained some of the disease resistance from the Chinese chestnut,” said Jared Westbrook, chief scientific officer of the fund.

Hybrid method for growing blight-resistant chestnut trees has been proven more complicated than initially expected. Although those efforts are still ongoing, a team at SUNY College of Forestry and Environmental Sciences has begun transgenic plants by taking an antifungal gene from wheat and transferring it into American chestnut embryos. .

Many chestnuts planted experimentally for generations have now risen above the head of Mr. Phap. When he examined them in August, he pointed out a few black locusts had made their own home next to chestnuts – an interesting development that signals that nature is doing its job, Mr.

Black locusts can absorb atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a more accessible plant. The leaves of the tree fall and break quickly, accreting the topsoil. And as a fast-growing but short-lived plant, it shaded other young plants in their earlier years, encouraging them to grow straight and tall as they compete for light.

“We call it the scales of nature,” said Mr. Phap. “It stays there for a while and helps heal the wound, and then it falls off.”

Climate change has complicated efforts to bring back tree species in other ways. As temperatures warm, the optimal range for chestnuts, and some other tree species, will shift northward into the northern United States and Canada, Dr. Westbrook said. Some wildlife managers have begun experimenting to deliberately relocate certain tree species to the north in a controversial process known as assisted migration.

Mr Westbrook said: ‘As chestnuts have been wiped out and the remaining trees only grow to a few years old before dying from leaf scorch, they have not had the same chance to reproduce and adapt to climate change as other species. “They basically live 50 to 100 years after disease-free plants,” he said.

The mine’s reforestation efforts have focused on planting many native tree species, but chestnuts have always been a good way to encourage the industry to change its standard practices.

“When you start talking to people about chestnut trees, they get very excited,” said Mr.

However, reforestation is about more than any other species. Christopher Barton, professor of forest hydrology at the University of Kentucky and president of Green Forest Work, said it was important to take a “holistic, ecosystem approach”.

For example, in some locations, growers not only plant trees, they also build wetlands. The man-made wetlands at Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia’s Allegheny Mountains look like a mosaic of small lakes, with tangled branches protruding from the water at points, fixed intended as a safe place for amphibians to cling to. said Anna Maria Branduzzi, afforestation coordinator at Green Forest Work.

The nonprofit group, along with the U.S. Forest Service, is working to restore the red spruce ecosystem on 2,500 acres of land in Monongahela that was once mined for coal.

Historically, the area would have been wet enough that peat, a porous material formed from partially decomposed organic matter, could serve as a important carbon sinkwill accumulate, says Dr. Barton.

After reclamation mining, this area lost moisture along with trees.

“The biggest limiting factor to tree growth is soil moisture,” said Shane Jones, an ecosystem officer with the Forest Service. “We’re trying to put the sponge back on the mountain,” he said, grabbing a handful of dirt and squeezing out a drop of water.

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