For all species restoration plans, the key is building a foundation of diversity for future adaptability. Across the range of the American chestnut, adaptive phenological traits such as leaf out and timing of flowering differ among the millions of trees still left in the forest ecosystem. Because of the differences between regional conditions such as temperature, day length, soil type and moisture, etc., there are likely unique combinations of adaptive traits which should be captured.
In order to preserve that wide array of genetic diversity and adaptability, TACF’s breeding program both conserves and utilizes the germplasm, or hereditary material, from as many wild American chestnut populations as possible.
Flowering American chestnut trees are discovered using a variety of means, but are generally located by members and local citizens as they hike or drive through forest lands. Through the “Tree Locator Program”, once a tree is located, a leaf and twig sample is sent to a trained TACF volunteer and/or staff person for proper identification as an American chestnut. As long as the tree is accessible for pollination, is flowering, and passes morphologically as an American chestnut, that tree will likely be incorporated in TACFs regional breeding program.
As of 2016, 680 planting locations have been established across an estimated 1,183 acres. Plantings are sited on both private and public lands, and are managed by a wide range of volunteers and partners. Orchard managers are responsible for establishment and maintenance of their site, although the local chapter can provide support when possible.
While a majority of TACF partners, cooperators, and volunteers participate through the planting of standard breeding materials, the network of individuals allows for unforeseen breakthroughs and application toward novel ideas. For example, the incorporation of resistance to Phytophthora root rot (PRR), primarily caused by Phytophthora cinnamomi, exists largely because of the efforts of a retired orthopedic surgeon and TACF volunteer, Dr. Joe James, from Seneca, SC. Other programs which have been initiated and fulfilled through the efforts of volunteer citizen scientists include, but are not limited to: the American Chestnut Learning Box, created by Gary Carver, a retired scientist from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and former president of our Maryland Chapter; and the Appalachian Trail Mega-Transect Project, introduced and coordinated by Kathy Marmet, a retired lawyer with our Virginia Chapter.
Many portions of TACF’s program are run entirely by volunteers, logging almost 50,000 hours of volunteer work per year. With a great reliance on volunteers and citizen scientists, TACF’s program provides a model for the conservation and restoration of other threatened forest tree species.