The Return of the King

One of the most ambitious quests in the world has begun, and you are invited to help.

Illustration by Eric Chow

We moved to the base of the Blue Ridge five years ago. Within weeks, we began hearing stories of a legendary giant that had once lived in the woods. Nobody we met had actually seen one. The titans were dead before the oldest of us were babes. We were told they ruled the forest, then were laid low by the most insidious of invaders.

But now, word comes of a savior. The return of the forest king is at hand.

My tone on the topic was less florid when I first heard about the death of the American chestnut tree. You know: Relax, guys. It’s just another tree. Look. There are plenty of trees on that mountain. Trees are trees. Oh boy, did I get an earful.

Then I saw pictures of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains taken around the turn of the last century. Towering American chestnut trees blanketed them. In pictures taken a few decades later, the landscape looked post-apocalyptic; a blight had dropped nearly every American chestnut tree. An estimated four billion trees were dead. An ecosystem, and a thriving rural economy based on the tree’s bounty, were gone.

The fight to restore the American chestnut began in earnest in 1983, with the founding of The American Chestnut Foundation by a group of plant scientists. In 1989, TACF established an American chestnut breeding station in Meadowview, Virginia. Today, Meadowview Research Farm has more than 30,000 trees in various stages of growth, the results of cross-breeding the American chestnut with the blight-resistant Asian chestnut.

However, there is likely a magic bullet coming from another source: a pair of biotechnology gurus at The State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. The work of tree geneticists William Powell and Charles Maynard has reenergized the fight to restore the American chestnut and captured the imagination of budding chestnut enthusiasts like myself.

Powell started his academic career genetically modifying tomatoes. He did his post-doc work at Utah State, where he began experimenting with genetically altering trees. In 1989, Powell was brought to SUNY-ESF to add his biotechnology chops to the chestnut project. Progress was slow. But then … “The main ‘ah-ha moments’ came when we figured out what gene would protect the tree against fungus, then figured out how to get that gene into the tree,” Powell said.

Once they successfully introduced a natural enzyme that breaks down the toxic acid created by the killer fungus, “We just needed to figure out the perfect amount to best protect the tree,” he said. After years of modifications, they hit the mark. Powell and Maynard’s latest round of hybrid American chestnut trees have shown no sign of blight.

Now, as the scientists and their team create more of the new American chestnut in their test plots, they’re in the process of getting approval for full distribution of the tree from three federal agencies. After submitting thousands of pages of documentation to the FDA, EPA, and USDA, Powell estimates the new blight-resistant American chestnut trees could be available for open distribution by “the summer of 2023, maybe 2022 if we’re really lucky.”

“But know that every prediction I’ve made hasn’t happened,” he joked. “We’re just trying to control what we can control. We are trying our best to make sure there’s an ample supply the moment we get permission.”

And then, what’s been called the “most ambitious species restoration project in the world” will begin in earnest. Besides planting trees grown at SUNY-ESF, Powell and Maynard’s team will distribute pollen through The American Chestnut Foundation. Within a decade, untold numbers of blight-resistant American chestnut trees could be returning to the forests from Florida to Maine.

But the project will only succeed on a grand scale with the help of an army of volunteers, Powell said. “We’re going to need help from private landowners and volunteers across the whole Eastern United States. … You could be one of them.”

I was thrilled to hear him say that. I’ve written 3,000 stories in my career, but this was the first to make me excited to plant something. 

I chalk up my enthusiasm to the beauty, grandeur, and perfect symmetry of the story. Something important and beautiful was lost; dedicated, brilliant people came to the rescue. The script is already written for Marvel or Lucasfilm.

Not convinced? Check out some of the short documentaries on the history of the tree and the restoration. Scientific American had an excellent piece, as did several major newspapers. Then, if you’re enchanted by the forest story, visit The Virginia chapter of The American Chestnut Foundation would love to welcome you to the quest. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue.

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