SRS Releases American Chestnut Course

flier describing chestnut course
The free online course, An Introduction to the American Chestnut, is now available. It provides one hour of Continuing Forestry Education credit through the Society of American Foresters. 

The American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was an iconic tree that is now functionally extinct. For a hundred years, researchers from multiple organizations have been working to restore this tree.

A free online course – An Introduction to the American Chestnut – is now available. The course covers chestnut taxonomy, silvics, historical importance, ecology, and its demise. A second course in development will cover American chestnut restoration and management.

Stacy Clark, a USDA Forest Service research forester with the Southern Research Station (SRS), developed the course as part of a sabbatical project. The course includes historical photos, videos, a glossary of scientific terms, dendrology tables that can be downloaded, and links to scientific papers or other webpages. The course has closed captioning and other accessibility features.

“American chestnut appeals to a wide audience,” says Clark. “The course is designed for everyone – the general public, university students, and forestry professionals. It provides an abundance of background information.”

Clark has been thinking about the need for such a course for a few years. “I’ve worked closely with forest managers throughout my career,” she says. “I have become increasingly aware that managers need more effective transfer of scientific information.”

The silviculture staff of the Forest Service Southern Region provided input about what information the course should cover. Clark was temporarily serving as the regional hardwood silviculturist for the Region when she began planning the course in 2019. The course introduces chestnut taxonomy, growth, and historic and ecological value.

chestnut with blight
A nonnative fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica) causes chestnut blight. This photo shows the fungus erupting from the trunk in reddish clumps of mycelium. Photos by Stacy Clark, USFS, and Mark Double, WVU.

The course includes several videos. One features an east Tennessee woodworker named Eddie Hopps, who discusses American chestnut wood qualities. Another video shows a remnant chestnut tree in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Although infected with chestnut blight, this tree is one of the few that has survived long enough to produce nuts.

Chestnuts were once a reliable and nutritious autumn food for people and their livestock. Chestnuts were also eaten by black bears, white-tailed deer, turkeys, and many other species. The Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon are now extinct — but they likely ate chestnuts and roosted in the tree’s branches.

American chestnut all but vanished before researchers ever studied its ecology. But today, the quest to produce American chestnuts bred for blight resistance has advanced tremendously.

Clark’s research program focuses on testing the best ways to plant and grow American chestnut seedlings – including regeneration harvesting and nursery seedling quality. With National Forest System experts, the University of Tennessee, and The American Chestnut Foundation, she is studying the growth and survival of over 4,000 seedlings bred for blight resistance. They were planted in fifteen sites on three national forests in the southern Appalachians. Clark’s second course will focus on these projects.

restoration
A second online course is in development and will focus on chestnut restoration. Photo by Stacy Clark, USFS.

To develop the course, Clark worked with many organizations, including the Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station, the University of Tennessee, and The American Chestnut Foundation. Technical and visual information for the first course came from The American Chestnut Foundation, Clemson University, West Virginia University, the University of Tennessee, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, and SRS, as well as publicly available photos from the National Archives, Forest History Society, Open Parks Network, and Forestry Images. The University of Tennessee Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries contributed to the graphic design and video production, with SRS.

Go to the course: An Introduction to the American Chestnut

For more information, email Stacy Clark at stacy.l.clark@usda.gov.

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