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10/16/2013 9:00:00 AM
Native trees may be ready to reclaim some Indiana forests in coming decades

Sarah Fentem, Herald

DUBOIS — It’s probably difficult for some to understand a forester’s job. Unlike most professions, with their daily or even monthly deadlines, a forester specializes in the long game. His task is more than just  a marathon — it’s teaching the coach who in turn coaches the runner who runs the marathon half a century in the future.

“What might be hard to people to understand is the mentality of a forester,” said Ron Rathfon, a forester at Southern Indiana Purdue Agricultural Center east of Dubois. “What we manage takes longer than our lifetime to mature.”

Rathfon might be one of the lucky foresters to see the fruits of his labor in his own lifetime. He has been part of a centurylong national effort to reintroduce the American chestnut tree into forests, and after decades of tinkering, the revamped species appears to be only years from reclaiming its native land.

In forester-speak, that’s practically a blink of an eye.

The American chestnut tree was once called “the redwood of the East,” spreading all the way from New England to the Ozarks. In the early 20th century, however, a fungal disease from Asia completely decimated the entire range within a few years. Called chestnut blight, the fungus has made it close to impossible for the trees to grow in their native habitat. The saplings are dead before they get a chance to spread their leaves.

“It wiped out almost all the chestnut trees in the nation; we haven’t found a whole lot of resistance in the American tree,” said Ken Eck, Dubois County’s Purdue extension educator for agriculture and natural resources.

In an effort to create a hardier American chestnut tree, horticulture geneticists began crossbreeding the species with the Chinese chestnut, a tree with natural resistance to the fungus that wiped out the native trees. The goal of the project, which was first attempted in the 1930s but abandoned, was to create a crossbreed whose only similarity to the Chinese breed was its resistance. Since the project was reinstated by The American Chestnut Foundation in the early 1980s, scientists have diluted the hybrid so that it is 15/16 all-American.

After every diluted generation, scientists inoculate the chestnut with the blight, and the surviving trees are used to create an even more diluted generation. The process moves slowly, as each generation needs to grow to a suitable size before being zapped with the fungus.

At the Purdue farm, foresters — with the help of many volunteers — have been growing more than 1,000 trees on 4 acres of farmland since 2009. This year was the first the trees have been large enough to inoculate. According to Rathfon, “this 4-acre area will eventually be filled with trees. Ultimately the only trees left will be the most true.”

Rathfon said the hybrid trees will be ready within 10 to 20 years. “After that, they will be the source for seed that will be given to state nurseries, national and state forests.”

But why all the effort for a single tree?

Ben Finegan, president of the Indiana Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, noted that not only was the tree a huge part of the native American ecosystem, the American chestnut has “enormous potential value for us in Indiana” and its hardwood industry. “It grows fast, it’s good timber wood,” he said.

Added Eck: “Without it, that’s one less wood source we have in our wood pile.”

In true forestry tradition, though, the process has value beyond its initial efforts.

“This tree died because someone brought a disease,” Finegan said, explaining that as the world becomes more connected, invasive species and diseases like the emerald ash borer and Canker have become more common. “We need to have strategies as a society for after this happens. … How do we recover from it?”

Finegan said the hybridization effort is the first of its kind and potentially would help new scientific developments in the future.

“No one’s tried this before,” he said. “It’s our version of going to Mars.”

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