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Historic Tree Finds a Home at Penn State DuBois

Wildlife Instructor Aaron Stottlemyer (crouching) and student Nathan McCandless secure the chestnut sapling in its new home.
5/4/2010 —

DuBois – The first American Chestnut tree to be planted in Central or Western Pennsylvania in this century has taken up root at Penn State DuBois. 


"After 26 years of breeding, we're finally able to produce the first potentially blight resistant chestnut," said Bryan Burhans, President and CEO of The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), and graduate of the Penn State DuBois Wildlife Technology program. "This represents the first trees we can actually put in the ground."


 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, and remains mostly absent from the landscape today.


"This species accounted for one quarter of our hardwoods before its demise," said Forestry Instructor Aaron Stottlemyer.  "It left an enormous hole in our forests when the chestnut tree died off." 


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, explained Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Forester Gary Gilmore.  "The loss of the chestnut was an ecological disaster," he said.  "The value it had to wildlife is undeniable, and that's why working to bring it back is a priority to all conservation oriented organizations."


For more than a quarter century, TACF, DCNR, and a handful of other organizations have worked to bring the chestnut back to North America. Locally, the DCNR Bureau of Forestry, and Penn State University have been working on breeding a blight-resistant American chestnut.  By cross-breeding American Chestnuts with the already blight-resistant Chinese Chestnut, scientists have hoped to produce a strain of American Chestnuts that is highly resistant to the blight.  The tree just planted at Penn State DuBois is one of the first trees that researchers feel could survive in the wild. 


"The tree will certainly get the blight," Burhans said.  "The question is whether or not it can fight it off." 


At a mere 18 inches high, Burhans said the tiny tree is a year and a half old, and came from a greenhouse in Tennessee, where some of the strongest of the newly bred chestnuts are born.  Noting the fast growth of these trees, Burhans said the sapling will shoot up rapidly.  "It could be chest, or head high by the end of summer," he said. 


Penn State DuBois Wildlife Technology students work on an ongoing chestnut tree project in Jefferson County each year, as well.  There, a farm containing around 2,000 crossbred saplings serves as another research hub for organizations like TACF.  One of those students, Nathan McCandless, had the honor of digging the hole for the new campus chestnut tree to be planted.


"It's an honor to be given the opportunity.  It's really something special, and something that no one else can say they had the chance to do," McCandless said. 


"It is very significant to have this tree on campus," said Burhans.  "In 15 or 20 years, you'll have one of the biggest chestnut trees in the country.  The place to come and see a real chestnut tree will be Penn State DuBois." 

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