WASHINGTON – Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne planted a blight-resistant American chestnut tree in the nation’s capital today, pledging to work with state and local governments and private restoration groups to help return this fabled natural icon to American landscapes.
“In planting this tree, we are planting the hope and making a commitment that this noble hardwood will be restored to the American landscape and its vital ecological role in our nation’s forests,” Kempthorne said. “With our partners from the American Chestnut Foundation and the mining industry, we are working to help return this natural icon to Appalachia by planting it on reclaimed surface mine lands.”
Once dominant in eastern forests, mature American chestnut trees, Castanea dentate, stood 100 feet tall and were five feet in diameter. They accounted for a quarter of the trees from Maine to Florida and west into the Ohio Valley. However, the species was nearly exterminated by blight in one of the greatest ecological disasters in North American history. By 1950, the pathogen had killed about 3.5 billion of the trees.
“At breeding orchards in Virginia and at Penn State University, the American Chestnut Foundation’s scientists have taken Chinese chestnut trees, which are resistant to the blight, and bred them with their American cousins over several generations,” said Marshal T. Case, President and CEO of the Foundation. “The most recent generations of hybrids have nearly 95 percent of the American chestnut’s genes, combined with the blight resistance of the Chinese chestnut. After 25 years of effort, we are producing seeds and seedlings to replant across the American landscape.”
“The coal fields of Appalachia match up almost perfectly with what once was the natural range of the American chestnut,” Kempthorne explained. “And we have discovered that chestnuts grow twice as fast on the loosely packed soils commonly found on reclamation sites.” Because reclaimed mine sites in Appalachia are surrounded by forests, wildlife will spread the American chestnut seeds from reclaimed areas to neighboring forests, allowing nature to repopulate the Alleghenies with the American chestnut.
Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) works with the American Chestnut Foundation, states, tribes, industry and environmental groups to encourage the repopulation of Chestnut trees at coal mines that were reclaimed under the agency’s oversight. These partnerships have planted more than 3,000 pure and hybrid American chestnut trees on surface mines in all seven Appalachian coal states.
OSM coordinates its American Chestnut restoration efforts through its Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, a 237-member partnership committed to using the best science and the best techniques to restore forests on reclaimed mine lands. The Initiative has the infrastructure and organization to locate mine sites as vectors of dispersal where sizable plantations can be established. OSM also provided funding in 2006 and 2007 to reforestation researchers at the University of Kentucky, Virginia Tech, and Ohio University to find better ways to plant American chestnuts on reclaimed mine lands.
The tree planting ceremony outside the South Interior Building marked the 30th anniversary of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which Kempthorne called one of the most successful environmental programs in American history. Also participating in the event were Kraig Naasz, President and CEO of the National Mining Association; Stephen Allred, Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management; and Brent Wahlquist, Appalachian Region Director for Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
Kempthorne noted that under the Surface Mining Act, OSM, states, tribes and private landowners reclaim lands disturbed by the mining activities needed to provide energy to run American homes and businesses. Since 1977 the coal industry has mined about 29 billion tons of coal under the Act, about 90 percent of that generating electrical power.
“During that same time, the industry has successfully reclaimed more than 2.2 million acres of mined lands,” Kempthorne said. “At many mines, the reclamation work has far exceeded all state and federal regulations. In addition, states and tribes have reclaimed nearly 240,000 acres of high-priority mine lands abandoned before 1977.” Though the Act is a federal law, states and tribes have taken the lead in regulating 97 percent of coal mines and reclaiming abandoned mine lands. The law exemplifies how the federal government can work with states and tribes to restore and conserve landscapes.
The American chestnut tree’s straight grain, light weight and natural resistance to decay and insects, as well as its beauty and strength, made it a favorite for construction and furniture making from America’s colonial days. The trees were also important to wildlife: deer, birds and livestock feasted on the plentiful chestnuts. Rural communities gathered the nuts for sale to urban centers. The tree is immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands.”
More information and downloadable images from today’s event are available at http://www.doi.gov/issues/chestnut.html