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Students and Faculty Could Help to Bring Back the American Chestnut

1/20/2009 —

DuBois – A research project involving Penn State DuBois faculty members and their students, Penn State Extension, and the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry could help to bring back a species of hardwood tree that was once a dominant tree in eastern US forests.  A rapidly spreading fungus, known as the chestnut blight, attacked the American chestnut tree in the early part of the 20th Century.  Within a few years, the chestnut virtually disappeared from America’s forests.  

“This species accounted for one quarter of our hardwoods before its demise,” said Forestry Instructor Aaron Stottlemyer.”  One in every four trees was a chestnut. I can’t even wrap my head around that,” he said, noting the drastic impact this had on the forest landscape.  What's more, is the effect that the loss of the chestnut had on wildlife that largely depended on the trees for the food they produced.  “It was the largest producing food source in the forest,” Stottlemyer remarked.  “Its demise was among the most ecologically significant events of our time.” 

Stottlemyer hopes an equally significant event will occur with the return of the chestnut.  Groups like The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), The Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry, and Penn State University have been working on breeding a blight-resistant American chestnut.  By cross-breeding American chestnut with the already blight-resistant Chinese chestnut, scientists hope to produce a strain of American chestnuts that will be highly resistant to the blight.  Wildlife Technology students taking Stottlemyer’s forestry classes will contribute to this effort and gain valuable field experience.

Stottlemyer said Wildlife Technology students will plant 2,000 chestnut seeds on a 3.5 acre portion of reclaimed strip mine near Coal Glen, Jefferson County.  They’ll do this in cooperation with TACF, which owns the land. The study begins now, and future students in the Wildlife Technology program at Penn State DuBois will continue the research for years to come.  The study was spear-headed by Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry Forester and project leader, Gary Gilmore and has the objective of developing methods to effectively reforest land that has been strip mined. 

Soil compaction, Stottlemyer explained, could result in poor tree growth on former strip mine sites.  “Common reclamation practices that involve heavy machinery compact the soil and then the land is planted in heavy grass cover to reduce erosion,” he said.    He added, “We’re interested in whether tree growth can be improved by loosening soil and reducing competition with grasses for light, water, and nutrients.” 

Another possible reason for poor tree growth at such sites could be the impact of rodents and birds that eat seeds before they become established.  This is where Penn State DuBois Instructor of Wildlife Technology Keely Roen will join in the research project.  “The same students in Aaron’s class are in my Wildlife Techniques class,” she explains.  “At some point we’ll do a rodent survey.  We suspect the rodents and birds eat the seeds.”  In this way, two related disciplines are coming together for one cause.  “Wildlife biologists and foresters are closely tied,” said Roen.  “You can’t just care about wildlife or just care about the environment.  They go hand in hand.” 

The opportunity to work on different parts of an important research project in two different classes, Stottlemyer said, will be one of the most valuable experiences his students can get.  “We’re going to be able to involve our students in so much of this.  They’re contributing to an important research project and seeing how the things they learn in class are applied toward managing our natural resources.” 

 Ultimately, throughout this learning experience, students could be contributing to one of the most significant events in the history of their field.  As Roen said, “Can you imagine the enormous potential of this work?”  “Growing chestnuts on strip mined land would be incredible.” 

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