Romancing the American Chestnut

  • American chestnuts (left) are smaller than Chinese and European chestnuts. The Chinese and European varieties are also resistant to the blight, making the imports more desirable to growers. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Food is always a big part of the holidays. But one
traditional food has – for the most part – disappeared from American tables. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


Food is always a big part of the holidays. But one traditional food has – for the most part – disapeared from American tables. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

(Sound of Nat King Cole singing, “Chestnuts roasing on an open fire…”)

That old chestnut of a song romanticizes roasting chestnuts as a part of the holidays. But a lot of us have never even seen chestnuts, let alone roasted them on an open fire. Chestnuts used to be a major part of the Eastern hardwood forest. There were millions of them. In fact, 25 percent of all the mature trees were chestnuts. But a blight, imported with some Chinese chestnut trees, slowly wiped out the American chestnuts. Now, they’re gone.

Well… almost. Much of the root stock is still alive. Sprouts grow until the blight knocks them back again. A blight only hurts the standing tree where it branches out.

And, in a few isolated pockets in the Midwest, the blight hasn’t reached the trees. A few American chestnuts are alive and growing and some of them are free of the blight. At Nash Nursuries in central Michigan, owner Bill Nash is guiding us through a rare sight… a grove of American chestnuts.

“These are 20 years old and as you can see, they’re fairly good sized. The American chestnut is quite a rapid growing tree. It’s well-suited for our climate, so it doesn’t have any of the problems that some of the hybrids do as far as growing and cultural care you have to take care of them. The Americans, you get them started and they’re pretty much on their own.”

In a few places in Michigan and Wisconsin there are small groves of chestnuts. They’re prized trees. They’re great for shade. The hardwood is rot resistant and makes great furniture and fence posts. And the chestnuts are eaten by humans and wildlife alike. Bill Nash says the tree will be popular again if it ever overcomes the blight that’s hit it so hard.

“The American chestnut will make another big comeback in this country as a yard tree, as a timber tree, as a wildlife tree.”

That part about a wildlife tree is more important than just worrying about the squirrels and bunnies. Chestnuts were an important food source for all kinds of animals.

Andrew Jarosz is a plant biologist at Michigan State University. He says the loss of chestnuts has been hard on wildlife populations.

“Chestnuts shed nuts in a more regular pattern than oaks, which will have what are called mast years – where they’ll have major crops, massive crops one year and very small crops in other years – which means it’s either feast or famine if you’re depending on oaks.”

Since the blight first began hitting American chestnuts about a century ago, researchers have been looking into all kinds of ways to stop it. One way is to cross it with the Chinese chestnut which has a couple of genes that resist the blight. But it takes a long time to breed out the Chinese characteristics from the American chestnuts and still keep the resistant genes.

Another approach is genetic manipulation. Genetically modifying the American chestnut tree to make it disease resistant. Again, work is underway, but it takes a long time. And even after success, it’s likely some people won’t like the idea of releasing a genetically modified organism into the wild.

The final approach worked in Europe when the blight hit there. It seems there’s a naturally occuring virus that kills the blight. It spread naturally in Europe. There are a few groves in Michigan that have naturally acquired the virus and it’s working to keep the blight at bay. Andrew Jarosz is working on the research. He says the trick is figuring out how to get the virus to spread to other trees short of manually spreading it on cankers infected by the blight.

“If we’re literally talking about millions of trees across probably, you know, the eastern third of the country, we obviously can’t treat every canker on every tree. And we need to be able to figure out a way to deploy the virus in a way that it can spread.”

Even with all that hopeful research, it’ll be ten years at least before some practical solutions end up in the forests, and Jarosz believes a couple of centuries before the American chestnut holds the place it once did in the forests.

Bill Nash knows it’ll be a while before there are major changes, but he is optimistic about the American chestnut.

“Oh, I would think the tree has a bright future. There’s enough people working on that, enough programs going on now… So, I would suspect that in the not-too-distant future we should have some of this progress made. You know, Robert Frost in his poem predicted the comeback of the American chestnut, that something would arise to offset that blight. And we’re starting to see that.”

Frost put it this way: “Will the blight end the chestnut? The farmers rather guess not, It keeps smoldering at the roots And sending up new shoots Till another parasite Shall come to end the blight.”

Seems Frost was an optimist too.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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From Industrial Waste to Raw Materials

  • A Conesville, OH smokestack. The Cuyahoga Valley Initiative has found a way to turn potential pollutants into money. (Photo by Kenn Kiser)

The Rust Belt regions of the United States are looking at new ways to make industrial prosperity and environmental recovery work hand-in-hand. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Shula Neuman reports on an effort that could be a model for industrial areas throughout the nation:


The Rust Belt regions of the United States are looking at new ways to make industrial
prosperity and environmental recovery work hand-in-hand. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Shula Neuman reports on an effort that could be a model for industrial
areas throughout the nation:

(sound of birds)

This area of Cleveland near the Cuyahoga River is where John D. Rockefeller first set up
his Standard Oil empire. The Cuyahoga is infamous for being the river that caught fire in
1969 and it became a symbol of the nation’s pollution problem.

Cleveland businesses and industries still live with that legacy. But through a new effort
called the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative, they’re trying to overcome it – although on the
surface it doesn’t look like there’s much happening.
Today, smoke stacks from steel plants still tower above head … below, like a jumble of
twisted licorice sticks, railroad tracks run through the meadows alongside the Cuyahoga.
Silos and old brick buildings line the banks of the river.

For Paul Alsenas, it’s an amazing place — not so much for what it has now, but for what it
can become. Alsensas is the director of planning for Cuyahoga County, the lead
organizer of the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative. The idea of the initiative is not to abandon
industry, he says, but to incorporate environmental and social principals into industry,
which could attract new businesses.

One of the more progressive aspects of the Initiative is something called “industrial
symbiosis.” Alsenas says industrial symbiosis works like natural ecology…

“An ecology of industry where nutrients flow from one form of life to another and make
it tremendously efficient and so therefore we have a competitive advantage. The
Cuyahoga Valley Initiative is not just about sustainability; it’s also whole systems
thinking, it’s also competitive strategy.”

Here’s how it works: waste from one company—a chemical by-product perhaps—is
used by a neighboring company to create its product. And that company’s product is then
sold to another company within the valley—and so on.

Alsenas says it’s already started: some companies located in the Cuyahoga Valley have
been sniffing out opportunities for sharing resources before anyone heard of the
Cuyahoga Valley Initiative. Joe Turgeon, CEO and co-owner of Zaclon, a chemical
manufacturer in the valley, says the Initiative sped things up.

“We pull all the members together and say, ‘OK, this is what I’ve got, this is what you’ve
got; here are some of the materials I need, here are some of the assets I have.’ And an
asset can be anything from a truck scale to a rail siding to by-product energy to

Zaclon and its neighbor General Environmental Management have already begun their
symbiotic relationship. GEM now buys a Zaclon by-product, sulfuric acid, and in turn
Zaclon purchases a GEM byproduct. GEM president Eric Loftquist says the benefits go
beyond simply saving his company money.

“You know, we do business all over the country… but when you look around you see that
for every dollar you keep in this county, that generates taxes, generates jobs and the
benefits just keep rolling down. So you always want to look within.”

Loftquist says the Cuyahoga Valley Initiative encourages that effort. He says it’s
remarkable that it’s all coming together at the right time and with the right stakeholders.
It brings businesses together with government and area non-profits—including some
environmental groups—in a way not thought possible by industry and environmentalists
in the past.

Catherine Greener is with the Rocky Mountain Institute, a non-profit think tank that
studied the Cuyahoga Valley and is helping to get the initiative off the ground. She says
this area of the river—known as the regenerative zone could put Cleveland on the world’s
radar as a new business model.

“Cleveland has been known for being one of the seats of the industrial revolution and
what we’re seeing is a new industrial model that can emerge. How can you create
manufacturing jobs, industry jobs without jeopardizing the health and welfare of all the
people involved and also, to overuse a word, to ‘green’ the area around it?”

Greener says industrial symbiosis is a workable, practical solution because it makes
business sense… not just environmental sense…

“Sometimes I think about it as finding money in your pocket after you’ve washed your
pants. It’s always a bonus and you’ve always had it. And the resources that you have
here you’re just reinvesting in them and finding them and looking at them differently.”

The participants agree that “industrial symbiosis” won’t solve all the waste problems, but
it’s one part of a movement that’s making industrial cities re-think their relationship with
business and the environment.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Shula Neuman.

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