How One Couple's Passion for the American Chestnut Tree Inspired Them to Act
Photography & Text by Jamie Johnson Ponder, Conservation Planning Technician, London, KY
It was atop a Kentucky hill that I first met James and Gail Cope and their border collie, Sparkle. A high, sturdy wind rushed over the mountain to greet us. It was our common love of the American chestnut tree that brought us together. It is our common hope for the 27 newly planted seedlings that keep me coming back.
They were as eager to share their home place as I was to receive and we walked together past bluebird box laden fence posts, through abundant pasture fields leading up to the cliff-line sheltered woods. Gail showed me a delicate pink lady slipper, a quiet flower and member of the orchid family, a white moth drank nectar from its blossom. We stood surrounded by century old trees reaching into the sky with root tethered hands to catch and sift the wind. A lifetime in the woods of Appalachian Kentucky and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. There were caves and ferns and massive rocks. There was peace. But beyond these things, there was a common purpose, to put into action the long desired hope of seeing the American Chestnut tree restored to the landscape of its native Appalachia.
Of all the programs I’ve worked with, the American Chestnut Restoration Project is the one that incites the most enthusiasm. I’ve never met a person who wasn’t captivated by the idea and, though the tree had largely disappeared from the landscape by the time they were old enough to notice, the Cope’s are no exception. James recalls working on the family farm and hearing distant crashes in the woods as his father explained another dead giant chestnut had just fallen.
The American Chestnut blight, an Asian fungus, first struck in 1904 in New York City and quickly spread, leaving in its wake a trail of dead and dying stems. By the 1950’s the keystone species of some 9 million acres of forest land had disappeared. Commonly referred to as the “redwood of the East,” the American chestnut tree was used for everything from cabin building and fencing material to hog feed. James Cope still has the fro his grandparents used to split chestnut shake shingles and rails for split rail fences.
The American Chestnut Foundation was founded in 1983 by a group of prominent plant scientists who recognized the severe impact the demise of the American chestnut tree imposed upon the local economy of rural communities, and upon the ecology of forests within the tree’s native range. The American Chestnut Foundation’s cross breeding program took Chinese chestnut trees, naturally resistant to the blight, and crossed them with their American cousins, resulting in trees that were 50% American, 50% Chinese. These trees were then crossed to the American species, resulting in trees which were 75% American. The procedure was repeated to produce an American chestnut tree that retains no Chinese characteristics other than blight resistance. At that stage of the breeding program, it became time to plant the blight resistant chestnuts on private lands, and that’s where the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) came in.
NRCS partnered with The American Chestnut Foundation through a $541,136 Conservation Innovation Grant to establish forest plantings, including American chestnut, on private lands. Originally established by Congress in 1935 as the Soil Conservation Service, NRCS expanded to become a conservation leader for all natural resources, ensuring private lands are conserved, restored, and made more resilient to environmental challenges like climate change. The organization works with landowners through conservation planning and assistance designed to benefit the soil, water, air, plants, and animals to establish productive lands and healthy ecosystems.
Our piece of the puzzle was to help establish research orchards on private lands. Research orchards consist of a mix of a variety of chestnuts, northern red oaks and white pines with the ultimate goal of removing the white pines once they’ve fulfilled their purpose of providing quick canopy cover to encourage vertical growth in the hardwood stand. I was asked to help identify landowners to steward American chestnut research plots on private land and the Cope's strong land and work ethic brought them quickly to mind.
In talking with the Cope's about the possibility of installing a research plot on their farm, I asked just how it was they’d acquired their strong land ethic. James said, quick as a wink, “from Mom. Mom always said, once you get a piece of land, don’t ever let it go.” Gail, whose grandfather bought and practiced conservation farming on more than 1100 acres of local farmland, simply says, “I can’t see destroying something just because you can.”
At this point, no one knows if the chestnut restoration project will completely work. Other attempts to restore vanished species have failed in the past. But what we do know is that none of those restoration efforts were ever coupled with a breeding program. That’s one of two things that makes the American chestnut restoration project a fertile breeding ground for hope. The second, and perhaps most important, is the collective passion and particular fondness residing in the hearts of the American people for the species. One of the things I most love about my country is that even in the bleakest of circumstances, there is always room for a miracle. For me, one of those miracles is the twenty seven tiny American Chestnut seedlings hanging on for dear life to an East Kentucky hillside.