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Natural Perspectives: Losing forests to pests in the East

May 18, 2011|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
(Courtesy Lou Murray )

Wherever Vic and I travel, we study the area, searching for environmental stories. Our recent trip to Tennessee yielded a number of interesting tales about eastern forests.

First, we learned that the magnificent forest that we saw in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was fairly recent re-growth. The original forest had been almost all clear-cut by the lumber industry. By the time the park was created in 1934, 80% of the original forest was gone. The lumber went to build the rapidly growing cities of Memphis, Nashville, Indianapolis, Chicago, etc.

Most of the remaining 20% of the forest had been selectively cut, with only the steepest, most inaccessible portions left untouched. The venerable forest giants that would make you marvel at the magnificence of their height and girth were gone by the time the national park was created. While our visit there was a wonderful experience, the knowledge of what was no longer there was sad.

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While the forest that we saw was beautiful, it wasn't the way the early settlers found it. One missing tree species in particular is the American chestnut. Once a dominant species of the Appalachian Mountains, its nuts fed bears, deer, passenger pigeons, Native Americans and early pioneers. Chestnuts were so plentiful that this species comprised 40% of eastern forests.

But in 1904, a fungus from Asia was discovered infecting American chestnuts growing in New York's Central Park. The fungus was thought to have come into the U.S. in the late 1800s with imported Japanese chestnut trees.

The blight spread rapidly, infecting the bark and killing the trees. From 1900 to 1940, an estimated 3.5 billion American chestnut trees succumbed to the blight. By the 1950s, the American chestnut was functionally extinct. A few surviving trees still sprouted shrubby growth from the base of stumps, but the stems soon became infected. No new nuts formed, and no new trees grew in their original range.

Vic and I lived in a historic house in Connecticut in the 1970s. The house had been built in 1710. It had huge oak beams in the ceiling and chestnut paneling on the walls. The lumbered slabs were 3 and 4 feet across for each panel. Living in a house with nearly 300-year-old wooden chestnut paneling was awesome. It stimulated our interest in the American chestnut tree.

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