Contributed by: Melissa DeStefano
This past January, students in Tom Klak’s Sustainability and Ecological Restoration class (ENV 309) began planting Chestnut seeds that are now growing in the UNE greenhouse on the first floor of the Alfond Center for Health Sciences building on the Biddeford Campus. Led by Professor Tom Klak, who also chairs the Gene Conservation Committee for the Maine Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, this project is allowing students in the Environmental Studies Department to gain hands-on research and restoration experience.
Originally, the Chestnut Restoration Project began last year when two students, who were then seniors (and now alumni), Kat Santarpio and Sarah Fleischmann, approached Klak with the idea to plant chestnut trees on campus. These students were then in the Environmental Studies Senior Capstone class, which is a class that combines hands-on learning and project management skills to focus on a large, interdisciplinary sustainability project. Santarpio and Fleischmann chose to focus on bringing back the American chestnut tree to UNE for their project. The students even organized a planting event for Earth Day last spring, where the UNE community was invited to help in planting American Chestnut seeds and seedlings around campus.
Since then, the effort has grown immensely. Since this past January, Tom Klak and students in his Ecological Restoration class have planted almost 1,200 seedlings of three varieties of chestnuts: American (Castanea dentata), Chinese, and hybrids of the two. The project is now part of a series of experiments across the eastern U.S. that aim to restore the American Chestnut by crossing them with Chinese Chestnut, which is resistant to the fungal blight that killed 4 billion of the native trees. This project is so critical because the blight continues to devastate the few remaining American Chestnuts across the eastern US forests from Alabama to Maine. The blight was imported accidentally to the US over 100 years ago and has had ruinous effects. First it attacks weak spots in the bark of a tree, then forms cankers, and eventually girdles the tree, killing all but its roots. The American Chestnut was historically known as a nutritious food for humans and animals and as a source of beautiful, lightweight, and rot-resistant wood.
Currently, the Chestnut Restoration Project at UNE is focused on four sub-projects. One is led by environmental science student Matt Organ and aims to understand why some chestnut seeds grow better than others in a greenhouse setting. A second is led by another environmental science student, Jeremy Lessard, who is mapping the distribution of wild trees in Maine and the location of the various breeding orchards of the American Chestnut Foundation. Two other projects are coordinated with students and faculty at Unity College and the University of Maine, Orono: one is to gather wild Maine chestnuts and create orchards that preserve local genetic diversity before the blight kills the wild trees; the other is to subject months-old seedlings to the blight fungus to determine if it is possible to shorten what is normally a multi-year process of selecting relatively resistant trees.
American Chestnut trees filled an ecologically and economically valuable role in American history, culture and agriculture. Restoring the species provides research and education opportunities for students and faculty here at UNE. On April 21st, UNE students, faculty and staff are invited to help plant more trees, started as seedlings in this semester’s Ecological Restoration class. All who are interested should meet Dr. Klak on the lawn to the left of Decary Hall at 2:00 pm for the Chestnut Tree planting service project.