Conservation Outdoors

The American Chestnut Foundation: Restoring a Foundational Eastern Tree Species

Wild American chestnut in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC

By Emma Castleberry

The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) is a grassroots, science-based nonprofit with a mission of restoring the American chestnut, an important foundation species in eastern forests that has been decimated by an invasive pathogen that arrived in the eastern US in the late 1800s. The American chestnut provides a food source for both wildlife and humans, a valuable timber product, and, like all trees, helps to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change.

TACF has more than 500 partnering organizations and more than 5,000 members, and even with this impressive support, the work of restoring this native tree will take decades. It’s a mission that requires a certain long-range view, what TACF president and CEO Dr. William Pitt calls “the foresight to see beyond one’s own lifespan and impact.”

In addition to its staff and research partners, TACF is supported by hundreds of volunteers. “We hope that others are inspired by this type of commitment and the multitude of benefits that this singular tree species offers to humans, wildlife, pollinators and overall forest health,” says Pitt.

New leaf growth on a young American chestnut sapling

TACF is celebrating 40 years this year, a milestone that feels significant for people but takes on a different meaning when you consider the lifespan of the American chestnut, which regularly lives between 300 and 500 years. “In ‘tree time,’ 40 years is barely reaching into the tween years,” says Pitt. “Hardwood tree rescue, breeding and reintroduction necessarily takes patience and decades.”

Biotechnology has played a crucial role in the pursuit of restoring this tree species. “TACF was started primarily with a traditional breeding program because those techniques were available at the time,” says Pitt. “Since then, new biotechnology tools have come to the forefront and created exciting new possibilities for incorporating disease-resistance into reintroduction populations.”

TACF has chapters across the east coast, including a Carolinas Chapter led by president Doug Gillis, who gained an appreciation for the American chestnut from his father, Glen. “He grew up knowing the American chestnut as a very vibrant and important timber and nut crop tree in Appalachia,” says Gillis. “He explained how the tree had been devastated by chestnut bark blight that began wreaking havoc on the trees in his area of the woods in the later part of the 1920s.”

TACF’s chief conservation officer Sara Fitzsimmons with her children and an American chestnut

The Carolinas Chapter provides opportunities throughout the year to plant, pollinate and harvest American chestnuts in orchards and greenhouse settings. “The American chestnut tree once was a dominant tree in the forests of the Carolinas,” says Gillis. “With successful restoration and over time, the tree can once again become the source of valuable timber. Restored trees will produce reliable nut crops that will help sustain wildlife. A diverse, sustainable forest is critical to the overall health of the ecosystem.”

To help educate the public on TACF and its mission, the organization has produced a documentary, CLEAR DAY THUNDER: Rescuing the American Chestnut, in association with Adam J Wood Films and Collective Projects. Screenings are taking place across the film’s native range and the film will soon be available to the broader public. “The documentary furthers the mission of TACF by telling a compelling story that raises awareness and educates others about the history and significance of the American chestnut tree and why its restoration matters,” says Pitt.

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