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Bring back an American classic

  • John Roe, a forest ecologist with the UVLT, chose sites to plant four American chestnut seedlings in full sun and with soil that once supported hardwood forest at Up on the Hill Conservation Area in Charlestown, N.H., Wednesday, August 15, 2019. Roe mixes soil from the site with peat moss while filling in around a chestnut.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Land Trust steward Mallory Okuly carries American chestnut seedlings to sites chosen for their planting followed by other volunteers with supplies at the Up on the Hill Conservation Area in Charlestown, N.H., Wednesday, August 15, 2019. The seedlings were donated by American Chestnut Foundation member Doug McLane, of Plymouth, N.H. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Upper Valley Land Trust Board Chair John Gerstmayr, of Reading, Vt., right, cuts roots with a mattock while preparing a hole to plant a chestnut seedling with John Roe, UVLT vice president of stewardship and strategic initiatives, at Up on the Hill Conservation Area in Charlestown, N.H., Wednesday, August 15, 2019. The field, once was once hardwood forest cleared for pasture. When the pasture fell into disuse, white pines grew up and took over the before the field was restored by a clearcut. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A dead American chestnut stands in reclaimed pasture land in the Up on the Hill Conservation Area in Charlestown, N.H., Wednesday, August 15, 2019. Chestnuts once dominated mountain forests in the eastern United States and were prized for their nuts and their straight-grained, rot-resistant wood before a blight decimated most of the trees by the mid-1940s. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • John Roe, Vice President of Stewardship and Strategic Initiatives for the Upper Valley Land Trust, wipes away sweat after securing a cage to protect a newly planted American chestnut seedling from deer at the Up on the Hill Conservation Area in Charlestown, N.H., Wednesday, August 15, 2019. The UVLT planted four of the trees as an experiment to see if they can survive and bear nuts in conditions and on land where chestnuts once grew. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, August 19, 2019

CHARLESTOWN — If Mother Nature left the chestnut tree for dead in this old pasture as a warning, John Roe didn’t take the hint.

Rather, the Upper Valley Land Trust’s vice president of strategic initiatives and stewardship saw the bare, twisted skeleton as an invitation to plant the seedlings of four new American chestnuts in a southwest-facing, recently clear-cut patch of the trust’s 1,100-acre Up On the Hill Conservation Area last week.

“Knowing that’s a chestnut is a good sign,” Roe said while leading a small group of land trust employees and volunteers and two visitors through the site on Wednesday afternoon. “It means this place grew chestnuts once.

“It’ll do it again.”

Roe also is relying on the institutional memory of Harvey and Christina Hill. The married couple donated the property — on parts of which each grew up, on then-separate farms — to the UVLT in 2017.

“I remember when (the dead tree) had leaves on it and produced nuts,” Christina Richardson Hill, 66, said before the work began on Wednesday. “It had to be tough to grow up here.”

From the golf cart that he and his wife, who answers to Chris, drove to the northern edge of the clearing, Harvey Hill, 83, added that he knows of at least one other dead chestnut over the ridge to the east, in the part of the property that stretches into neighboring Unity.

“There are also a few living ones on a strip where (Gary) LeClair farms,” Harvey Hill said. “Last time I looked at them, they had nuts on them.”

That’s music to the ears of the land trust in general and to Roe in particular, in this new chapter of the UVLT’s ongoing effort, with help from the American Chestnut Foundation, to restore the species in the Upper Valley.

During a recent Chestnut Challenge, trust members and staff and other naturalists identified 16 American chestnut trees in the UVLT’s 995-acre Smith Pond Shaker Forest, in Enfield between Interstate 89 and Route 4A. Among the seven mature trees identified, the biggest tree stood 35 feet tall with a diameter of seven inches. At least five of those identified were producing chestnuts.

While the trust is encouraged by the Smith Pond trees’ production, the four seedlings at Up on the Hill came from the Plymouth, N.H., orchard of Doug McLane, a member of the American Chestnut Foundation who grew them from seeds collected at outings around New England.

“This is a test-trial,” trust board president John Gerstmayr, of Reading, Vt., said while helping Roe dig holes for the seedlings and erect cylinders of wire mesh fencing to keep deer from browsing on the young trees.

For this particular site, Roe decided to use McLane’s pure-bred American chestnut seedlings, rather than any of the genetically-engineered hybrids that the foundation is contributing to other parts of the country in an effort to create a resistance to the blight.

“The hybrids were going to be, like, 88 percent pure,” Roe said. “But it turns out they’re not as resistant as they thought.”

Resistance wasn’t an issue during the centuries that wildlife and Native Americans all along the Eastern Seaboard relied on the nuts. And during colonial days and through the 19th century, European settlers and their descendants relied on the rot-resistant wood of an estimated 4 billion chestnuts to build sturdy fences, houses, barns and some of the most valuable furniture in the New World.

Then in the early 1900s, a fungal blight, apparently imported by accident from Asia, started invading chestnuts through wounds in the bark, insidiously choking off the flow of nutrients. By 1950, according to the American Chestnut Foundation, “the fungus had eliminated the American chestnut as a mature forest tree.”

The land trust is counting on another kind of fungus, called mycorrhizal, to give the Up On the Hill population a fighting chance. Roe said that before the clear-cut of second-growth forest in the old pasture over the last two years, the beneficial fungi had decades to develop in the soil. On Wednesday, he mixed peat moss with the dirt dug from the holes, and sealed the seedlings inside the blend.

“It’s like putting a baby to bed,” Gerstmayr’s wife, Pam, said while Roe planted the first tree amid a patch of blackberry bushes at the north end of the field.

Now if they can just keep the deer away from the youngsters for the three to five years Roe estimates they’ll need to start blossoming and producing nuts.

“What should we name this one?” Roe asked, while entering the seedling’s GPS coordinates on his phone.

“How about Harvey?” John Gerstmayr replied.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com or 603-727-3304.