The American Chestnut
The American Chestnut tree reigned over 200 million acres of eastern woodlands from Maine to Florida, and from the Piedmont west to the Ohio Valley, until succumbing to a lethal fungus infestation, known as the chestnut blight, during the first half of the 20th century. An estimated 4 billion American Chestnuts, one quarter of the hardwood tree population, grew within this range.
The American Chestnut tree was an essential component of the entire eastern US ecosystem. A late-flowering, reliable, and productive tree, unaffected by seasonal frosts, it was the single most important food source for a wide variety of wildlife from bears to birds. Rural communities depended upon the annual nut harvest as a cash crop to feed livestock. The chestnut lumber industry was a major sector of rural economies. Chestnut wood is straight-grained and easily worked, lightweight and highly rot-resistant, making it ideal for fence posts, railroad ties, barn beams and home construction, as well as for fine furniture and musical instruments.
The blight, imported to the U.S. on Asian chestnut trees, is a fungus dispersed via spores in the air, raindrops or animals.
The American Chestnut Foundation began an effort in 1983 to restore this iconic species by breeding pure American Chestnut trees with Asian counterparts, to capture the genes that confer blight resistance. They have more than 500 volunteer-run hybrid tree orchards from Maine to Alabama and are partnering with SUNY’s Environmental Science and Forestry department to also develop a transgenic tree which confers nearly 100% blight resistance.
The Rensselaer Plateau Alliance will partner with the American Chestnut Foundation and SUNY ESF to continue this effort here at Chestnut Hill.
We hope the tree will be reintroduced to the eastern forests in our lifetimes for future generations to enjoy.
Fore more information, visit the American Chestnut Foundation website at www.acf.org.
The Work of Ken James
Ken James spent his early years on his grandfather’s farm near Brockport, NY. There he learned to prune apple and peach trees, harvest their fruits, and in time he developed a love of all trees.
An avid sportsman and outdoorsman, Ken began his career as a physical education teacher. One day he had an opportunity to walk through the woods with an 80-year-old naturalist. “Here was this elderly woman and I could barely keep up with her,” Ken would tell listeners. He realized how much she knew that he didn’t and as a result refocused his teaching on children and the forest.
When his own children were young, Ken worked at Sargent Camp in New Hampshire. In addition to a 6-week summer camp, children came during the school year for 5-day immersions in nature. Ken trained all of the staff and loved taking night walks with an ear trained for owls, studying the night sky through a telescope, and telling campfire tales.
After purchasing this property in 1968, Ken began planting fruit trees and other ornamentals. As he employed his grafting skills to improve apple varieties, he noted that American Chestnut saplings regularly sprang from 100-year-old roots, only to wither from blight. He sought help from the American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation in Virginia and began working to breed blight resistant trees. It is difficult to imagine the rigors of digging holes in rocky soil full of roots, grafting scions, and thinning the forest to give chestnuts growing room, but Ken did so painstakingly. He kept a meticulous history of the hundreds of trees he planted and grafted. Over the decades—Ken worked the land until 2014—his efforts paid off with purely American Chestnuts now growing, bearing fruit and ready for the next and, optimistically, final stage of work toward blight resistance.
Ken envisioned his decades of work continuing. This site will play an important role in reintroducing a blight-resistant strain of American Chestnut to the forests of the Eastern United States. It will also be used to educate school children and for research in forestry and other disciplines.
We thank Ken James for his many years of dedicated work and his vision for the future of this beautiful land.
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Chestnut Hill was made possible with a generous donation from Ken James.
The Chestnut Hill project was supported with funding from the New York State Conservation Partnership Program (NYSCPP) and New York's Environmental Protection Fund. The NYSCPP in administered by the Land Trust Alliance, in coordination with the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Additional thanks to Warren Fane, Inc. for discounted materials for the parking area.