How did the TACF save the American Chestnut?

July 10, 2019

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Did you know that the American chestnut tree was once almost extinct? Due to a lethal fungus infestation that rapidly spread across the east coast, the number of American chestnut trees in our native forests drastically dropped. Luckily, thanks to our hard-working partners, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), you can still find millions of their sprouts dispersed around. Founded in 1983, the TACF has spent numerous years studying, researching, and restoring the American chestnut. Scientists wanted to save the beautiful, tall, native tree because it was so versatile and offered many benefits to the community. Today, humans still use its wood for furniture, little critters can use its nuts for nutrients, and birds can use its branches for shelter. 

Follow along as we interview the New York City District 2 representative of the TACF-NY chapter, Mr. Dale Travis, as he tells us more about the American chestnut.

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Out of all the trees in the world, why the American chestnut tree?

“Ah, that’s an easy question. The American chestnut used to be the dominant hardwood tree in the eastern forest. 1 in every 4 was a chestnut, and they were much larger and taller than any other oaks around; they’re actually thought to be the redwood of the east. But in the early 1900s, Chinese chestnuts were imported for nut production, and unbeknownst to the people importing them, they were carrying a fungus. It decimated almost all the American chestnut trees in the east. Since it was quite a significant lumber tree, many foresters wanted to restore them. They tried to back-cross the American chestnut and Chinese chestnut in hopes to give them the Chinese chestnut’s resistance to the blight, but still have all the American chestnut features. This was because the American chestnut was a tall, fast-growing, majestic tree. Its wood was rot-resistant and didn’t need to be pressure treated, it was a very important lumber tree. Its nuts supported almost all the wildlife in the forests, tasted sweeter too. It was a beneficial tree for all.” 

How did you create a blight-resistant hybrid?

“Well, people didn’t think that the back-crossing thing would work. The trees produced still had thousands of genes from the Chinese chestnut, and they didn’t look and grow like the American chestnut. So finally, a small group of people from the TACF-NY chapter decided to follow a different approach. They went to SUNY-ESF and collaborated with them to find a solution through genetic engineering. It took a lot of trials and brainstorming to achieve what we have accomplished today. It took them 18 to 20 years, but they finally created a hybrid; a blight-tolerant chestnut tree. They discovered that the wheat gene was what they were looking for all along, it had a detoxifying agent to it. They took every new chestnut species and inserted a new gene in it, essentially transplanting a gene from wheat into the embryo of the chestnuts. Even after the discovery of the wheat gene, it took many trials to finally create the right, long-lasting, blight-resistant American chestnut tree; but it happened.” 

Second from the left: The interviewee, Mr. Dale Travis, among other members of the TACF and board members of the Queens Farm Museum.

Second from the left: The interviewee, Mr. Dale Travis, among other members of the TACF and board members of the Queens Farm Museum.

What are some of the other work or achievements of the TACF?

“Our main goal is to restore plant species to their native land, and we use many different techniques such as backcross and regional breeding. We have various reforestation projects also. But the TACF-NY chapter has been growing American chestnuts by finding trees that were not yet dead and still producing, collecting, and planting nuts all throughout the state. We have been supplying all nuts to ESF that were needed for their research, and we are producing young seedlings now called mother trees. They’re pure American, so they will get large enough to reproduce then we can cross breed them with the resistant chestnut that ESF is researching right now. Since I supervise the New York City District 2 of the TACF-NY chapter, I sometimes work with the Queens Farm Museum. It’s a working farm that caters to a lot of school groups. They were very excited to participate in the chestnut program, and provide public education on the American chestnut and volunteer opportunities and activities for public schools. 

What can we do to help support?

“Well, I can’t think of anything specific but anything you would like to do to support us is welcome. You see, the more this becomes public knowledge, the more support we have. If you continue to just spread the word, that would be great. Of course, joining the TACF membership would be good too, it’s only $40 a year, and the majority of the proceeds go to the national TACF and a portion of it helps out the different chapters it has like the TACF-NY chapter. We also have a lot of volunteer opportunities because we are mostly all volunteers. Any kind of support the public can provide would be nice.”

The American Chestnut Foundation is a private, non-profit organization that has dedicated many years to the restoration of our native eastern forests. They have successfully made numerous discoveries to help preserve our country’s natural resources. New Leaf Paper is extremely humbled to be partners with a committed, selfless, environmental organization. We encourage you all to #standtall with us and our native forests by showing some support for TACF.

Contributor: Julia Silva

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