What can Experimental Forests teach us about American Chestnut?
Bent Creek Experiment Forest near Asheville, NC
The earliest research foresters were not a sentimental lot. They had a big job to do in the 1920s—restoring the Southern Appalachian forests left by logging, subsistence farming, and approaching chestnut blight—and they had a very small appropriation from Congress to bring to the task. Working out of three rented rooms at the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper office and supported by a single secretary, the first Forest Service research director in the South and his three technical assistants began an ambitious program at the Bent Creek Experimental Forest that stretched well beyond its boundaries. They lived in tents, prepared their own food on campfires, and divided their time between installing plots, making shingles from dead and dying trees, helping with surveys, and writing research papers.
It is no surprise that these early pioneers viewed the approaching chestnut blight not as the tragedy that many see it as today, but as just one more obstacle between them and their goal of establishing a new forest that would be a continuous source of goods and services to the American public.
Trees had to be cut. Uses needed to be found for the chestnut trees that were dying. Decisions had to be made about which species would take the place of American chestnut in the forest and in a myriad of products—not only tannin for a thriving leather-tanning industry, but also nuts for animal and human sustenance and wood for log cabins, furniture, caskets, and fences.
The land had to be prepared for the new “crop” of trees. Later, when stump sprouts began to appear where chestnut trees had been felled, steps had to be taken to ensure that these doomed offspring would not crowd out other more viable species before dying themselves.
In the midst of this activity, the researchers found time to record valuable information about the forest that was dying at Bent Creek. In 1926 and 1927, two timber sales removed most of the American chestnut trees there. But first, foresters mapped the distribution of the species, measured 7,190 individual trees, and tagged their stumps. Although their goal was to understand the new forest that would replace the old, the foresters ended up taking one of the few detailed records of where and how the American chestnut, which once made up 25 percent of the Southern Appalachian landscape, grew in different terrains and elevations.
New Research Builds on Old
The irony is that the demise of American chestnut coincided with the beginnings of forest research; today's researchers know little about the ecology of the species-or how it will compete if successfully reintroduced into the forest landscapes of the 21st century.
These questions interested Henry McNab, a research forester at Bent Creek who shares the same practical bent and ingenuity that characterized his early predecessors. In 1998, McNab began a pilot study, planting pure American chestnut seedlings to test their survival and growth in relation to canopy density using three adjacent sites: one under a dense canopy, a second cleared of all trees, and a third with partial canopy. McNab also tested three treatments: fertilization only, installation of plastic tree shelters only, and combined fertilization and shelter installation. After 5 years, McNab found that survival was higher in the plots under the full canopy than in those with partial or no canopy. When compared with seedlings that were left untreated in a control plot, survival was higher with the tree shelter treatment and lower with the fertilizer treatment.
McNab cautions that this pilot study was too small to draw any firm conclusions, but the results do suggest that small chestnut seedlings can hold their own in forests with little or no investment of time, equipment, and followup attention. “One thing that people forget is the reason that American chestnut was such a dominant species in the Southern Appalachians,” says McNab. “Thanks to its extensive root system, its ability to sprout when conditions are right, and its rapid growth, the American chestnut was once able to outcompete its rivals for sunlight and nourishment. This was true both on dry slopes where oaks now prevail and in the rich, moist cove sites that are currently dominated by yellow-poplars.”
Plans are underway to continue chestnut research at Bent Creek—a restoration study adjacent to a popular bicycling and hiking trail, and a study on using herbicides to control competition in a hybrid chestnut plantation—but McNab’s involvement will be to advise and share perspectives with the next generation of research foresters. Stacy Clark will add the Bent Creek studies to those she has already underway in Alabama and on the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee.
A Final Word
The Bent Creek Experimental Forest is a microcosm of the Southern Appalachian region, from its early days of abusive logging and farming to the replacement forests that grew in abundance to the effects of urbanization that we see today. As such, it is a living record of history as well as a source of data, both published and as yet untapped.
Although the researchers of the 1920s did not know how the information they were collecting would be used, their training and integrity compelled them to collect it anyway. This ethic continues among the researchers at Bent Creek today.
But the landscapes of the Southern Appalachians are becoming more fragmented and the suburbs of Asheville are rapidly expanding towards Bent Creek, ratcheting up demands for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and other urban pressures—often at the cost of installing new studies and maintaining old ones. McNab thinks that it’s important to temper those pressures with yet unknown threats and opportunities for discovery by continuing to collect long-term data. “If we can find uses today for chestnut information that was collected a hundred years ago, who knows what will be needed in another half century? It’s important to keep our options open.”
For more information:
Henry McNab: 828–667–5261 x119 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Stacy Clark: 256–585–0652 or email@example.com
Recommended reading: Beattie,
R.K.; Diller, J.D. 1954. Fifty years of chestnut blight in America. Journal of Forestry. May: 323-329.
Loftis, D. 2005. Planting trials with American chestnut in Southern Appalachian forests. In: Steiner, K.C.; Carlson, J.E., eds. Proceedings of the conference on restoration of American chestnut to forest lands. Natural Resour. Rep. NPS/NCR/CUE/NRR-2006/001. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Capital Region, Center for Urban Ecology: 167-172.
McNab, W.H.; Patch, S.; Nutter, A.A. 2003. Early results from a pilot test of planting small American chestnut seedlings under a forest canopy. Journal of the American Chestnut Foundation. 16 (2): 32-41.