Jay McMahan
Staff Writer

A group of environmentalists are using chestnut trees to restore areas of Appalachia razed by strip mining.
“The idea is to change a barren area to forest land to benefit wildlife and water retention … to develop the forest to what it was like before the blight,” said Marshal Case, president of the American Chestnut Foundation.
The American chestnut population was decimated 100 years ago when a Chinese chestnut was brought to the United States. It carried a fungus which destroyed 3.5 to 4 billion trees from Maine to Georgia, said Barry Thacker, founder of the Coal Creek Watershed Foundation in Knoxville.
One in four trees in the Appalachian Mountains were American chestnuts before the infestation, Thacker said.
“By 1950 (the blight) essentially destroyed the most abundant tree in the forest,” he said.
Since the 1970s, the ACF has been working on a hybrid tree that is 94 percent American and 6 percent Chinese to resist the infestation.
Case said researchers are close to completing the hybrid.
“That’s why we are experimenting in these areas,” he said.
Planting took place at Zeb Mountain in Campbell County in March.
This planting is just the initial stage in an effort to restore the chestnut tree, said John Johnson, senior in forestry and research assistant for the project.
“Basically (we are trying) to figure out how to plant chestnuts on mine sites,” he said.
Johnson said strip mining makes it difficult to grow trees because it destroys organic manner and topsoil which aid in the growth.
“The sites are not ideal, but it is important to fix (the) destruction,” he said.
Johnson said strip mining is a problem in the greater Appalachian area, causing the destruction of 500 square acres of land in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Georgia.
Ironically, strip mining may be a key component of the chestnut’s revival. The U.S. government wants pure trees in the forest and will not allow planting of hybrids, Thacker said.
“The American Chestnut Foundation realized that strip-mined areas are ideal,” he said.
Case said the ACF is working with the Appalachian Reforestation Regional Initiative to determine which coal companies meet the standards required to participate in the project.
“The purpose is to use blight-resistant trees and to work with (a) selection of coal companies,” he said. “It puts our material into areas that were mined to restore the landscape.”
The National Coal Corporation convinced the land owner of Zeb Mountain to restore the site as forest, Thatcher said.
Case said support for the project was so strong that some volunteers had to be turned away.
“It is a very unique situation. People are coming together to correct damage done in the past,” Case said.
Two plantings have taken place at Zeb Mountain already, including earlier this month with students from Elk Valley Elementary.
“We used different planting techniques, and forestry students will evaluate how well the planning worked so they can decide how to plant in the future,” Thacker said.
He said this year only pure American chestnuts were planted to collect data, but the hybrids will be used in future projects. Thacker added that other hardwoods are being planted along with the chestnuts to simulate how a real forest would grow.
Case is optimistic about the future of the chestnut. He said restoring the American chestnut will be an important part of combating climate change because of its rapid rate of growth and large root systems which he said will combat in carbon requisition.
Thacker predicts that hybrid seeds should be available to the public in five to 10 years, but said it will take generations for the tree to return to pre-blight levels.