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The American Chestnut Project: Part II

Author: Wild Bill
Date: September 19, 2006
(In the photo display above, the top photo shows (l-r) Jo Meyer, Bill Maher (back to camera) Ronnie Camp, Jody Rice, and Glenn Biggerstaff. The upper left hand photo is Ronnie Camp with chestnut burrs collected from the tree. The photo to Ronnies right shows the chestnut tree trunk and displays its small size. The photo below Ronnie shows Joe about to head upwards with assistance from Glenn Biggerstaff as Ronnie looks on. At the bottom is Jody Rice on the way up, moments before a suddent thunderstorm moved into the area. To the right at bottom is Joe in the treetop harvesting the burrs.)

It was still three days before the official start of autumn, but Monday, Sept. 18, was the only available day that tree climbers and researchers could get together for the fall harvest of the carefully pollinated and protected nuts of an extremely rare American chestnut tree that had been found last spring at Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park near Warm Springs, Ga.

We met at 9 a.m. in the parking lot at Dowdell’s Knob, the heavily wooded western point of a secondary ridge on Pine Mountain. This was the exact spot where, according to legend, President Roosevelt in the 1930s came up with the idea for the Civilian Conservations Corps.

Our group included Jody Rice, the senior interpretive ranger at the 10,000-acre state park; Ronnie Camp from the American Chestnut Federation and Micrometrics Inc.; Jo Meyer from the Pine Mountain Trail Association; climber Glenn Biggerstaff from Maryland (one of Bob Wray’s students); and brother Joe and myself.

We were missing a number of people who had been involved earlier in the project. The missing people included Nathan Klaus, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources who discovered the tree last spring; Dr. Dave Keehn from the American Chestnut Federation; Bob Johnston from Micrometrics; Abe Winters and John Routon from Tree Climbing USA; and Jeff Newman from TreeTrek Adventures. The list of the missing also included a large number of volunteers who had helped haul heavy equipment to the tree several times during the summer, then hauled it back out at the end of every workday.

Klaus and Keehn had previously said this tree was particularly important because it is the southernmost flowering tree they have discovered, and because it appears to be more resistant to chestnut blight than other nearby American chestnuts.

The American chestnut was nearly wiped out in the early 20th century by the blight that arrived in New York City in a shipment of plants. Up until that time, American chestnuts had been among the largest and most popular shade trees and nut trees in the eastern U.S., reaching a height of 100 feet or more.

Young trees still grow out of the stumps of the dead trees, but the slow-growing trees normally succumb to the blight long before they reach maturity.

Fortunately, the blight did not affect the American chestnut’s very close cousin, the Chinese chestnut. The Chinese chestnut, which usually grows only to about 30-35 feet, now thrives in most of the states along the Eastern Seaboard.

Scientists have been working for more than 60 years to crossbreed the Chinese and American versions of the chestnut to create a blight-resistent tree.

After “our” tree was discovered, several climbers got together in early summer and set up an extensive traverse system between four surrounding trees that allowed us to reach almost to the very top of the target American chestnut tree. It took about two hours to set up the system every time we climbed, and almost that long to tear it down each evening. We could not climb the chestnut tree itself because it was too rare, too valuable, too thin and too delicate.

In June we had climbed up on the traverses and dipped each young flower into a medicine bottle filled with hybrid pollen that was 1/8th Chinese chestnut and 7/8th American chestnut. Paper bags were then placed around the 30 pollinated flowers, and the bags were tied at their mouths to hold them in place.

We had returned to the tree in late July to inspect the bags and work with Georgia Public Television on a 90-minute documentary they were filming about efforts to restore American chestnuts to the nation’s forests. The documentary is tentatively scheduled to be aired later this year, but an exact date has not been set.

Our goal on Monday was to snip the thin ends of the branches and allow the carefully numbered bags, each hopefully containing one or more pollinated nuts, to fall to the ground. Ronnie Camp then collected each bag and packaged them to be sent to the foundation’s lab.

We tried to reach the bags from the ground with a pruning pole, but most were still out of reach. Joe and Jody did the actual traverses to collect the bags while I cleaned out a lot of suckers and smaller limbs from a nearby oak that was preventing direct sunlight from reaching another nearby American chestnut. Camp said the increased sunlight would help the second chestnut to flower next spring and would give the foundation another source for pollinated nuts.

Glenn, admittedly still new to tree climbing, made one climb to help set up the traverse system. He then joined Jo Meyer to do ground support for the crew.

There was one bag left in the tree when a severe thunderstorm rolled into the area from the west and drenched us with more than an inch of rain in less than 15 minutes. Although the rain soon tapered off, there was still a lot of lightning in the area and Ronnie Camp made the decision to abandon the final bag.

We were thoroughly tired and thoroughly soaked, but somehow we managed to haul all the gear and ropes back up the mile-long mountain trail to the parking area. Wet gear and wet ropes, we discovered, weigh about double their dry weight.

Plans are already under way for next spring to fertilize, pollinate and eventually cultivate both the “Klaus” tree and the nearby smaller tree.

If anyone is interested, volunteer climbers will be needed on various dates to help with the project. The problem is that the exact dates for pollinating and harvesting will not be known until a couple of days before, due to a lack of scientific knowledge about when the American chestnut flowers and when it drops its nuts in middle Georgia.

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