Tom Cormons, Deputy Director of Programs and Director of our Virginia office, and his wife Heather recently welcomed to the world not one, but two budding Appalachian Voices conservationists and whitewater rafting enthusiasts (if mom and dad have anything to say about it!). Cassie and her brother Kai join big sister Brooke in rounding out the very active Cormons family advocates. Congratulations!
Archive for the ‘2012 – Issue 3 (June/July)’ Category
Coal Ash Debate Spills Into Transportation Bill
Appalachian Voices’ Red, White and Water campaign is working to oppose an amendment on the federal Transportation Bill that would essentially halt the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rule-making process on toxic coal ash storage and disposal.
The bill passed the House in April, and is now undergoing review by a House and Senate Committee.
The provision was introduced by Rep. David McKinley from West Virginia and is identical to another bill he introducted which was passed by the House last fall. McKinley’s district is home to the Little Blue Run coal ash pond, the largest in the country, spanning two states and covering approximately 1000 acres. Residents of neighboring Chester, W. Va., have complained
of gushing leaks from the side of the pond.
Seventy-nine House members, including several Appalachian lawmakers, signed onto a letter to committee co-chair Senator Barbara Boxer, asking that McKinley’s provision be kept in the final version of the bill.
A Prize Possum
Thanks to the big hearts of some North Carolina musicians, Appalachian Voices is making new friends in the gently rolling hills of the Piedmont. Molly McGinn, the sultry-voiced singer from the Greensboro, N.C., collaborative country-alt band Wurlitzer Prize, and David Brewer, the massively talented musician often fronting Americana rock and roll favorites Possum Jenkins, hosted a fantastic evening of music with their bands as a benefit for Appalachian Voices. At the end of the show, the musicians donated a hefty portion of the proceeds to our work to end mountaintop removal coal mining. A hearty thank you to both of these amazing groups — please be sure to check them out! Visit: possumjenkinsband.com and wurlitzerprize.wordpress.com
Reaching the World, One Google Earth Layer At a Time
Appalachian Voices was recently featured by Google Earth Outreach in a case study detailing the organization’s use of advanced Google mapping tools to make a difference for the planet. The case study focused on the Appalachian Google Earth layer that provides a high-resolution tour of a mountaintop removal mine site, before-and-after overlays for hundreds of mountains destroyed by mountaintop removal, and video and photo accompaniments. The layer was built using Maps, API, KML and a MYSQL database. The case study also highlights our My Connection tool, which allows residents to use their zip code to explore their personal connection to mountaintop removal mining, and the new Human Cost of Coal page, built in conjunction with The Alliance for Appalachia and launched on iLoveMountains.org in February.
To date, millions of people have viewed mountaintop removal through the Google Earth layer, and thousands more have accessed the My Connection and Human Cost tools.
Visit google.com/earth/outreach/stories/ to read the case study and learn about other Google Earth success stories.
Making Sure Dominion Doesn’t Dominate Our Energy Future
While the Southern Environmental Law Center represented us in front of the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) during a hearing over how Dominion Virginia Power will meet electricity demand for the next 15 years, Appalachian Voices teamed up with the Sierra Club, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and about 50 passionate Virginians outside the building to rally for clean energy. Some attendees wore air breathing masks and black shirts on one side, representing Dominion’s current dirty plan, while others wore blue shirts and carried windmills to represent the cleaner alternative.
Dominion, one of the nation’s largest utilities, has made no plans for significant investments in renewable energy and instead plans to meet demand through large investments in natural gas plants.
Attendees cited a study that shows that over 10,000 jobs could be created if Virginia took clean energy seriously. Professionals from the medical community and owners of businesses from the solar, wind and energy efficiency industries spoke to the SCC at the rally about the consequences of continuing to depend on fossil fuel power. Virginia State Delegate Morrissey offered the commission a letter signed by 13 other state representatives urging them to reject Dominion’s plan outright. The SCC judges may take a month or so to deliberate.
For more on our Virginia coalition work, visit WiseEnergyforVirginia.org.
On June 2, more than 150 people gathered in Washington, D.C., for the 7th annual End Mountaintop Removal Week in Washington, sponsored by The Alliance for Appalachia. After a day of training, participants spent three days meeting with Congressional representatives to urge them to support legislation restoring the Clean Water Act to its original language, as well as talking with federal agencies tasked with regulating coal mining and its impacts.
On Wed., June 6, a Rally for Appalachia took place in the Upper Senate Park across from the Capitol building. More than 100 people attended to listen to speakers and watched as more than six people shaved their heads in a show of mourning for mountains destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining.
In addition, thousands of individuals across the country joined the action from afar by contacting or visiting their congressional representative district offices. Independent groups working with AppRising simultaneously staged peaceful sit-ins at four offices throughout Capitol Hill.
By the third day of the Week in Washington, the Clean Water Protection Act, the Alliance’s legislation in the House, had garnered 125 bi-partisan co-sponsors from all across the country. Recent cosponsors include Representatives Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA), Hansen Clarke (D-MI), Janice Hahn (D-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).
For more information about the Alliance’s efforts to end mountaintop removal coal mining, and to see images from this year’s event, visit iLoveMountains.org.
Appalachian Voices has joined the Sierra Club and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards in filing suit against A & G Coal Corporation in Virginia. The suit, represented by the environmental law firm Appalachian Mountain Advocates, alleges that A & G has been polluting Virginia’s public waterways through unpermitted discharge of selenium. The unpermitted discharge violates both the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
Selenium is a naturally occurring element in some rock layers in Central Appalachia. Left in the ground, its toxic properties do not cause harm. However, surface mining can release this element into streams, where it accumulates in fish and other aquatic life, causing deformities and reproductive failure.
Frasure Creek Update
In April, the Supreme Court of Kentucky ruled in favor of Appalachian Voices and our partners Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Waterkeeper Alliance and the Kentucky Riverkeeper. The ruling upheld a lower court decision that allows us to intervene in a settlement between Frasure Creek Mining and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
The original lawsuit brought against Frasure Creek Mining and International Coal Group in 2010 was for 20,000 violations of the Clean Water Act with potential penalties of over $700 million. Violations listed in the suit included false and potentially fraudulent reporting of water pollution levels. The coal companies reached a settlement agreement with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet of $670,000, less than one percent of the allowable fines, and Appalachian Voices and partners decided to intervene.
The Supreme Court decision stands as confirmation of citizens’ rights to take part in the enforcing of the Clean Water Act. Despite this provision in the federal law, the Kentucky cabinet opposed Appalachian Voices’ intervention and joined Frasure Creek in appealing the Circuit Court decision that allowed us to intervene.
The case is currently in court-ordered mediation, and settlement talks are ongoing.
For more information about our Appalachian Water Watch work, visit appvoices.org/waterwatch.
Just a few short weeks from our press date, Appalachian Voices will be celebrating its 15th anniversary of working to protect the air, land, water and communities of Appalachia. We hope you’re able to join us at the “Artists for Appalachia” event on
June 21 in Charlottesville, Va., where we will enjoy a special evening of music, readings and revelry with distinguished guests including Jeff Goodell, Jr., Kathy Mattea, Daniel Martin Moore, Michael Johnathon, and more!
Founded in 1997 in Boone, N.C., Appalachian Voices now has offices in Charlottesville, Va., Nashville, Tenn., and Washington, D.C. We use grassroots organizing, education, citizen activism, high-tech online tools, litigation and legislation to empower everyday citizens to speak up for the mountains and help shape policy on a range of issues including mountaintop removal coal mining and air and water pollution from coal-fired power plants.
For information on reserving tickets, please visit Appvoices.org/ArtistsforAppalachia. If you’re not able to attend but would like to join the effort to preserve Appalachia’s natural and cultural heritage, please visit appvoices.org/membership to find out how you can get involved.
By Mallory McDuff
As climate change becomes more politicized in Congress, many religious leaders — from evangelicals to Episcopalians — have expressed more agreement than discord on the need to address the rising threat. Yet it’s often easier to acknowledge the urgency of the climate crisis than to translate that knowledge into action on a congregational level.
As a lifelong Episcopalian, I traveled across the country with my two children to document how churches were integrating the environment into their ministries. This research revealed a need for stories and strategies about how congregations were confronting climate change, the greatest moral crisis of our time.
To that end, the anthology Sacred Acts includes voices from local congregations that are harvesting food from church gardens, weatherizing parish halls, installing solar panels on sanctuaries and advocating against mountaintop removal.
Faith-based environmental organizations such as Earth Ministry, Interfaith Power & Light, GreenFaith and the Evangelical Environmental Network are working with faith communities to address climate change through stewardship, spirituality, advocacy and justice. Georgia Interfaith Power & Light, for example, has completed 76 energy audits of religious facilities, saving congregations 20 percent of their energy budgets; 200 more congregations are in the pipeline.
Many of these stories have ties to Appalachia. In Kentucky, Father John S. Rausch describes the decades-long effort to combat mountaintop removal through advocacy and liturgy, such as using the Stations of the Cross to highlight the horrific impacts of mountaintop removal on Appalachian communities.
Food, faith and climate are connected through the church garden at Oakley United Methodist Church in Asheville, N.C. Newcomers to the church receive a jar of salsa, canned with garden tomatoes; elders have hosted canning parties for young families, and the church parking lot is the site of a farmers market.
At La Capilla de Santa Maria, a church that ministers to Spanish-speaking immigrants in Western North Carolina, Jill Rios worked with parishioners on sustainable building projects for the church.
Despite this momentum, some skeptics might protest that churches are unprepared to confront global warming when memberships and budgets are shrinking. Others might say people of faith lack the capacity to act with consensus around a politically divisive issue.
But history tells me that Christians have mobilized around moral and political issues such as the anti-slavery and civil rights movement. Climate change has brought together diverse religious denominations that often disagree about issues such as abortion or gay marriage, especially in North Carolina.
We must reinvigorate churches through climate action that reflects loving our neighbor as ourselves. Our faith prepares us for sacred acts of resistance that can reconcile us with the earth, each other, and ultimately with God.
Mallory McDuff, Ph.D., is the author of Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate (New Society Publishers, 2012) and Natural Saints (OUP, 2010). She teaches at Warren Wilson College.
The American spirit is tied to the land, to “purple mountain majesties” and the pioneer’s self-reliance. Our relationship with the natural world has always been a balancing act between the drives of conquest and extraction and an instinctual dependence, curiosity and respect.
When we fail to guard our public lands against those who would tilt that balance into the deep pockets of a greedy few, we are selling out the American spirit. Supporters of big industry try to decry the very presence of public land, implying that the word “public” violates our freedom. That couldn’t be further from the truth — the public is us, and this is our land.
The American Legislative Exchange Council — the ultra-conservative lobby group that championed mandatory IDs for voters and launched preemptive attacks on regulation of coal ash — has set its sights on reducing protections for public lands. ALEC is behind proposals that would benefit extractive industry by transferring ownership of federal wilderness areas to states, undermine the president’s ability under the century-old Antiquities Act to establish national monuments, and roll back the Endangered Species Act.
A slew of bills would impose costly penalties for groups or individuals that challenge leasing and drilling decisions on public lands. Extractive industries claim their access to public land is unfairly restricted, even though they have more public land than they need — over 20 million acres of federal land leased by these industries are unused.
Legislation was also introduced this spring, ironically called the Sportsman’s Heritage Act, that claims to open wilderness for hunters and anglers, but would actually lead to the intrusion of more roads and logging in wild areas that are already open to hunting. Opponents to the bill see it as a petty attempt to divide hunters and conservationists and prevent them from standing up for their shared resources.
Yet if there’s one thing Americans agree on, it’s the protection of our public lands, even if some of our elected officials don’t understand the land’s value.
Undeveloped public lands help to clean our air and water, and provide economic boons to municipalities across the country via recreation and tourism. Americans have a public covenant to protect our remaining wild places for future generations.
Championing the short-term wishes of corporate power brokers over long-term needs to protect our health and local communities means that profit wins out over humanity.
It’s up to us to determine whether this is the moment in history where our natural heritage is sold to the highest bidder or where the voices of the people unite to protect our public lands.
By Brian Sewell
Last year, Western North Carolina recognized the 100-year anniversary of the Weeks Act, the law that gave the U.S. Forest Service the ability to purchase private land in the Eastern United States to be managed as National Forests. Historian Kathryn Newfont’s new book, Blue Ridge Commons: Environmental Activism and Forest History in North Carolina, caps that centennial celebration by tracing the evolution of the Forest Service since the passage of the Weeks Act and exploring the history of Pisgah and Nantahala national forests, two of the earliest eastern woodlands managed by the agency.
Astounding in its breadth of research, Blue Ridge Commons encapsulates the past century from the early days of the Forest Service’s eastern expansion to the rise of clearcutting and the emergence of the environmental movement. Exploring the notion of commons environmentalism — resources held by all and shared among a community — Newfont traces the region’s irrevocable relationship to the resources found in the forest — no matter its managers.
Recently, we spoke with the author and historian about Blue Ridge Commons and how Appalachian communities and those around the world are still standing up for the commons (see below for interview).
Author’s Corner Q&A with Kathryn Newfont
What is the distinction between commons environmentalism and wilderness environmentalism?
The commons relationship with the forest, or it could be with another set of resources — fisheries being a great example — is a harvest relationship. Wilderness is seen as ahistorical. There is this sense that people are not part of wilderness, which suggests there is not really a human history in wilderness. That’s only one definition of wilderness, but it’s one that, until recently, wilderness environmentalism was really built on.
[Wilderness environmentalism] is not going to resonate with people who have close working relationships to a landscape. For them, the woods are richly historical. Hunters typically learn to hunt when they’re very small. They go out with [their] fathers and uncles and cousins and so on. They go to places that their ancestors have gone to for a century or more. They’re inheriting this sense of history, which is very different from wilderness.
How did the regional notion of the commons change when the early national forests were established?
The coming of the national forest, in a lot of ways, enabled the persistence of the commons. In other parts of Appalachia, people treated coal company land as de facto commons. But when coal companies come in with bulldozers and plow down the commons, there’s not much people can do about it. They can’t defend the commons very effectively from corporate owners.
Most of the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests in North Carolina were purchased from timber companies. They had already moved out of the hands of local owners. When the lands moved into government ownership, they were under the rubric of the Forest Service, which had a harvest approach to forest resources as opposed to the Park Service.That harvest model dovetailed really nicely with the harvest tradition of commons use.
The thing that’s different is when you get to the post-World War II era with large-scale industrial development happening. That’s when you start getting big harvest equipment in the coal mines and in the timber arena. When the Forest Service starts coming in and clear-cutting or leasing to oil and gas companies for petroleum development, well at that point local people can actually exert their power as citizens, protecting lands that they ultimately own.
Can we see the commons at work today?
In this region, just think of opening day of hunting season or fishing season. Right now, if you walk up to your local produce stand, you’ll find ramps. If you go to a store that deals in medicinal plants, those are coming off the commons. A lot of times those are harvested from national forest land or land serving as de facto commons. Being aware of it helps to explain the cultural perspective that a lot of mountain residents are coming from.
Across the globe, the easiest ones to point to are all the fisheries, from the Gulf here in North America to waters off the coast of Japan. There are commons systems in lots of forests too: parts of the Amazon, and the forests of Southeast Asia. Those systems are alive in a lot of places.
My hope is that once people can understand what commons is, they’ll be able to see it in more places. If we just begin to understand that these systems exist in a lot of places, they have a lot of staying power.
Can the idea of the commons be used to exert pressure on corporations?
I’d like to think so. I think taking on the big corporate development is much more challenging than taking on the government. At some level government is supposed to be answerable to the people. Corporations don’t always recognize that same responsibility. But the notion of commons includes some attention to livelihood, to actually make some kind of living. I do think it has power in that direction.
Editor’s Note: We have long featured our region’s fantastic places and phenomenal hikes in the “Hiking the Highlands” column. What we have less frequently focused on, however, is how some of our favorite places were protected in the first place.
Non-profit land trusts are committed to the preservation of our region’s natural heritage and scenic beauty. And, most importantly for this column, they protect ample acreage for hiking and outdoor recreation.
Land trusts understand that to make conservation tangible, they need to get people outside and onto the lands that they protect. With an innovative new program that mixes conservation with a little competition, Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, a Western North Carolina land trust, is doing just that. We went to Peter Barr, an avid hiker and the Trails and Outreach Coordinator for CMLC, to learn more about what they are doing to encourage the synergy between enjoying the land and protecting it.
Hiking the Southern Appalachians to Support Land Protection
By Peter Barr
Since 1994, the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy has protected more than 23,000 acres of western North Carolina’s mountains, including the headwaters of the French Broad River, the Blue Ridge Escarpment and Hickory Nut Gorge.
CMLC’s White Squirrel Hiking Challenge — named for the beloved wildlife oddity that can be spotted on some of the conservancy’s protected tracts — invites members of the community to get out on protected lands and discover the value of conserving the amazing places in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Protecting land from sprawling development, subdivision and other threats that damage and divide our mountains has myriad positive impacts — safeguarding clean drinking water, improving air quality and increasing biodiversity.
Whether you’re an experienced outdoors enthusiast or new to the wonders of nature, the idea is that once you experience these special places for yourself, understanding that they’re protected forever, you will become a conservationist for life.
By completing eight hikes on CMLC’s most spectacular conserved lands, finishers will earn a white squirrel hiking patch and bragging rights for land conservation. The real reward is experiencing these amazing places, partaking in a little friendly competition, and supporting their permanent protection.
Please note that while most of the hikes included in the hiking challenge are open to the public, a few are on private land. Landowners generously open their property to hikers but request in return that visitors support land conservation by becoming members of CMLC.
For directions to hike trailheads and to enroll in the White Squirrel Hiking Challenge, visit carolinamountain.org/hikingchallenge.
DuPont State Recreation Forest
Two Hiking Challenge outings entail journeys in the popular DuPont State Forest — which straddles Henderson and Transylvania counties — and celebrate CMLC’s origins following the movement to protect the forest in the 1990s.
The “Tour de Falls” hike requires hikers to reach three of DuPont’s popular waterfalls: Hooker, Triple and High Falls. The three falls—among the most beautiful in the region—can be reached with a round-trip hike of less than three miles.
Another hike, a two and a half mile jaunt to the summit of Stone Mountain, makes up for the ease of the waterfalls tour. But the climb up a steep trail rewards hardy hikers with panoramic views from the top of one of DuPont’s scenic granitic domes.
Once imminently threatened by development, the forest’s abundant natural beauty is now adored by hikers, cyclists and equestrians alike. A grassroots coalition of conservation supporters in the 1990s ultimately saved DuPont and facilitated its purchase by the state of North Carolina to become public land. CMLC’s support of the forest’s conservation was one of its first land protection initiatives.
CMLC protects DuPont to this day, by buffering its borders with private conservation easements and facilitating the acquisition of additional land — including 65 acres added to the forest in April.
Uncles Falls at Green River Preserve*
Tucked away in a hollow within Henderson County’s Green River Preserve, Uncles Falls requires a hike of only two miles round-trip. Totaling more than 3,000 acres, and one of the largest private conservation easements in western North Carolina, the preserve is home to a co-ed summer camp that thrives on experiential learning by connecting kids to nature.
More than 2,600 acres of unspoiled forests and rugged mountain slopes at Green River Preserve are conserved by CMLC — including the headwaters of the Green River. Summer campers use Uncles Falls for a ritual of initiation during their stay — jumping underneath the cascade with their clothes on and shouting the words “polar bear” three times. While the ritual is not a requirement of the Hiking Challenge, it is highly recommended for an invigorating extra dose of nature.
Florence Nature Preserve
A three-mile hike within CMLC’s Florence Nature Preserve in the Upper Hickory Nut Gorge parallels pristine mountain streams, traverses old growth forests and features historic mountain home sites. The Preserve was donated by the Florence family in 1996 and CMLC has retained ownership ever since, maintaining a five-mile network of public hiking trails on its 600 acres.
East Fork Headwaters – Foothills Trail
One of the largest remaining privately-owned tracts of land in the southern Appalachians, the East Fork Headwaters property hosts miles of trout streams, rare mountain bogs and federally endangered plants and animals. Its permanent protection is still a work in progress — to date, nearly 800 acres have been put into conservation ownership. For the Challenge, hike four miles along the venerable Foothills Trail — a long-distance hiking path which traverses the Blue Ridge Escarpment on the border of North and South Carolina.
A hike to Transylvania County’s Connestee Falls — quite literally a walk in the park — is the easiest in the Challenge and illustrates that not all beautiful natural features require a grueling trek to find enjoyment. A new wheelchair accessible boardwalk, compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, stretches fifty yards from the parking area on U.S. 276 south of Brevard, N.C., to an overlook platform that offers views of three picturesque waterfalls.
Connestee Falls, one of the region’s most popular cascades, and Batson Creek Falls converge to form a third falls known as Silver Slip. All three waterfalls are part a conservation easement obtained by CMLC, which also facilitated the property’s purchase by Transylvania County and its establishment as a county park.
Bearwallow Mountain may be the crown jewel of the White Squirrel Hiking Challenge. The hike ascends a one-mile trail — constructed by CMLC with the help of volunteers — to the summit of a 4,000-foot mountain on the Eastern Continental Divide. The peak hosts an expansive grassy meadow that offers a near-360 degree view to reward hikers who make the short climb. A CMLC conservation easement protects 81 acres atop the peak to date and CMLC is working to conserve nearly 400 more.
The trail up Bearwallow Mountain is part of a developing network of trails in the Hickory Nut Gorge that will link a growing network of conserved lands — including lands protected by Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and Chimney Rock State Park. Ultimately, the network will encompass more than 50 miles of trails and span the length of the breathtaking Hickory Nut Gorge.
Kens Rock/Weed Patch Mountain*
Ken’s Rock, an impressive cliff on the west face of Youngs Mountain near Lake Lure, can be reached by just a half-mile hike. Located on private property, the landowner permits access one to two weekends a month for hikers that support land conservation. The dramatic view from the rock includes Weed Patch Mountain, a 1,500+ acre tract purchased by CMLC from bankruptcy court following failure of a gated housing development. The Weed Patch tract is contiguous to part of Chimney Rock State Park; CMLC and the Town of Lake Lure are developing an extensive hiking and mountain biking trail network on the property.
*denotes hike on private land
By Molly Moore
When Daniel Boone traveled through Appalachia, the tall trunks and sweet nuts of the American chestnut flourished. But to most modern residents, stumbling across a full-size American chestnut in the woods is as likely as spotting an eastern cougar. Unlike the cougar, however, the chestnut is making a comeback.
During the American chestnut’s golden age, the tree was prized for its straight-grained wood. The deciduous giants flowered in summer, leading to reliable, copious nut yields that fed mice, squirrels, turkey, deer, bears, people and livestock.
But in 1904, a forester at New York’s Bronx Zoo saw an unfamiliar orange fungus on some of the zoo’s chestnuts — the trees soon died, and the fungus rapidly spread. What became known as the chestnut blight traveled at a rate of 30-50 miles per year, carried by humans to other areas.
“People felt like the forests were dying because about 25 percent of the canopy cover of the forest was American chestnut,” says Michael French, a forester with The American Chestnut Foundation. By the 1950s, about 4 billion trees were lost across the East.
The Asian fungus enters through a wound in the bark, cutting off the tree’s circulation and killing everything above ground. The roots, however, survive to foster a new generation of sprouts. These young trees can live for decades in the understory and can grow 10 feet during the first year of ample sunlight, but because of that growth they also develop a mature tree’s gnarly bark. That bark increases the tree’s susceptibility to blight, and the process starts over.
To restore this magnificent tree, in 1983 The American Chestnut Foundation began breeding the stately but vulnerable American chestnut with its crooked but blight-resistant Chinese cousin. The half-and-half trees were again crossed with an American parent, resulting in trees that were 75 percent American. As those trees grew, they were challenged with the blight to see which inherited strong Chinese disease resistance. Trees with high resistance and good American characteristics were crossed with another American parent. Researchers repeated this Darwinian process to create trees that are 15/16 American, with leaves and timber qualities similar to pure Americans.
Two of these trees were intercrossed, and the best of their offspring open-pollinated. Those seedlings are now being introduced to the rigors of the real world.
“We’re not going to stop at this stage, we intend to increase the blight resistance and American characteristics in our trees, but we also want to get these trees back out there as quickly as possible,” French says. The American Chestnut Foundation plans to breed three more generations to create trees with over 99 percent American character.
But the foundation has another introduced pathogen to tackle. Chestnuts in the Piedmont of North and South Carolina began dying in the mid-1800s, and when the organization’s Carolinas chapter tried planting hybrid chestnuts in 2001, most of them failed due to a water mold called Phytothphora that causes root rot. Luckily, some Chinese chestnut families are also resistant to Phytothphora, so researchers don’t need to start from scratch in their attempt to establish a fleet of trees that can thwart both blight and root rot.
The ultimate test for the backcross chestnuts is whether they can propagate when faced with forest competition. A Conservation Innovation Grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services will help fund the planting of approximately 250,000 hardwood seedlings, including more than 14,000 potentially blight-resistant American chestnuts on 12 former surface mines in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky by 2014.
Reclaiming surface mines is complicated, and meaningful reforestation is a rarity on the 2,300 square miles of Appalachia that have been surface mined. But a forestry reclamation technique developed in the mid-2000s shows promise on the 15 square miles where it’s been applied, and more land is permitted for this type of reforestation. With this grant, the chestnut foundation can partner with mining companies on active mine sites and work with landowners in places where reclamation is complete but reforestation unsuccessful.
Including hybrid chestnuts in reforestation efforts will let researchers see how the trees fare in different areas and in competition with other species. If the trees pollinate well, these plantings will help spread the chestnut across its former ridgetop range. French is also hopeful that well-drained mine spoils might make conditions more difficult for Phytothphora root rot.
In April, the chestnut foundation and a host of partners and volunteers completed a planting on 22 acres of a former surface mine in Schuylkill County, Pa. The site, the first of its kind funded by the new grant, now boasts more than 1,000 backcross chestnuts among its hardwood seedlings. The foundation has enough young trees to plant five more sites in 2013.
The project’s results, however, won’t be certain for 80 to 100 years. “We won’t know how successful we were until we have chestnuts back out there in the forest reproducing and taking care of themselves,” French says.