Before most of the species was wiped out by blight, Pennsylvania’s forests were filled with American Chestnut trees. Now, nonprofits throughout Appalachia are working to restore Chestnut populations. One such group, Green Forests Work, is helping to reintroduce American Chestnuts in their native habitat by incorporating them into reforestation efforts on former surface-mining sites.
A hundred years ago, Pennsylvania’s forests were dominated by the American Chestnut. Its nuts were a vital source of nutrition for humans and animals alike, and its wood was prized for its sturdiness and rot-resistance, as well as for its usefulness in a wide range of industrial applications.
By the middle of the twentieth century, the American Chestnut had been virtually wiped out by blight. Early attempts at developing blight-resistant varieties failed, and the species seemed all but doomed to extinction. But thanks to the persistence of long-term breeding programs — and some late-arriving innovations — American chestnuts are poised for a comeback. And with newly-funded mineland reforestation projects in the works across Appalachia, there’s a real opportunity to restore its populations where they’re needed most.
“Unlike a lot of our other nut producing trees… American chestnuts flowered June and early July… so every year they would produce this huge reliable abundant nut crop,” said Michael French, Director of Operations for Green Forests Work. “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire really used to be a way of life in Appalachia.”
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire really used to be a way of life in Appalachia.
Green Forests Work is at the center of a wide-ranging effort, which includes PEC, that’s working to re-establish healthy native woodlands on former surface-mining sites.
“Because of where the mines are located, which is usually high elevations where it was economically feasible to surface mine for coal, a lot of those areas would have had a chestnut component to their forests,” said French.
Once the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act was passed, mining companies were obligated to remediate the land so that hillsides wouldn’t erode. This usually meant simply compacting the soil and planting lots of aggressive grasses to green up the empty land as fast as possible. There was no obligation to restore the land to the forested ecosystems they once were.
“They took about 750 thousand to a million acres across the Appalachian region that were forested before mining, and converted them into these non-native grasslands, which was suitable under the law because the mining companies said it was going to become hay pasture land or unmanaged wildlife habitat or some other land use that was allowable under the law,” said French. “So Green Forests Work started working to address those areas where there was no longer an obligation on the part of the mining company, federal or state government, or any entity to do further reforestation.”
Because of where the mines are located, which is usually high elevations where it was economically feasible to surface mine for coal, a lot of those areas would have had a chestnut component to their forests.
The first thing that Green Forests Work does when starting on a new site is take out as many invasive plants as possible. Then they rip the ground with a bulldozer to de-compact the soil, which helps water sink into the ground and makes it easier for tree roots to grow. Then they acquire bare root seedlings from nurseries and plant them by the thousands on the abandoned mine land. The seedling varieties depend on what’s native to the area. In Pennsylvania, the mix might include red oak, white pine, and American chestnut. Slowly, this process is restoring native ecosystems to their former glory.
“The intent of the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act was good, and they did a lot of good things with the law. But just in greening everything up and using non native species — they used to plant millions of autumn olive across these landscapes — these non-native species just don’t benefit native pollinators, native wildlife, our birds, our mammals, the way our native species do, the things that they’ve evolved with, to consume and use throughout their life cycles,” said French.