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American chestnuts planted at UVa-Wise

Dozens of volunteers gathered at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise on Saturday, March 10, to work on a project to restore the American chestnut tree to the Appalachian region.

The project also gives UVa-Wise an outdoor classroom area so its students may monitor the tree growth on land that was once surface mined.

UVa-Wise is partnering with the Virginia Department of Forestry, The American Chestnut Foundation, federal Office of Surface Mining, Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, Mountain Forest Products and other groups on the reforestation project. The initiative will help return healthy hardwood forests to a small portion of the estimated three-fourths of a million acres of previously mined land.

The American chestnut was hit by the chestnut blight more than 100 years ago. The disease eradicated older chestnuts from the forests. The American chestnut is still found in the eastern part of the United States, but only grow as small saplings that eventually die from the chestnut blight. The seeds that were planted on campus are potentially blight-resistant chestnuts that are the result of nearly 30 years of research and development.

“This is a really exciting project for the college and the Forest Service and the other agencies that are involved,” said Sim Ewing, vice chancellor for finance and administration. “It is a real opportunity, especially since the college had the property available. It will go well with our wetlands project and it will make the land usable again.”

The volunteers arrived early and walked through up to a portion of campus that was mined about three times since the late 1950s. The soil had been compacted tightly as required under mined land reclamation regulations that were in place when the coal was mined. The soil at the planting site was softened through a process known as deep ripping in order to give the trees a chance to flourish.

“UVa-Wise has been tremendous for us to work with on this project,” said Bill Miller with the Virginia Department of Forestry.

Richard Davis, a veteran employee with the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, said working on the planting project was a bit of a homecoming. Davis, a graduate of the college, spent time as a student counting the white-footed deer mice for a class assignment about 32 years ago. He invited the youngsters in the crowd to return to the site 32 years from now to see how the trees have grown.

Michael French, a representative of The American Chestnut Foundation, said the trees were abundant from Maine to Georgia before the blight.

The newly planted seeds could grow fast and possible produce chestnuts in about eight years.