Oak leaves rustled in the wind in front of blue skies. I’m flat on my back. Darn, I’ve fallen on my ass. Again. As I sat up and untangled my legs from the thicket of hay-scented fern, I was grateful that the only witness to my tumble was a chipmunk. My colleague was collecting data on another plot of the Milford Experimental Forest and given the vastness of the forest, we can’t see or hear each other. Both of us experienced falling, tripping, bruising, scraping of limbs since we started our field research for the American Chestnut Restoration study during the beginning of the summer. The dangers of field work; but, we do it anyway because of the reward.
Having spent two years in graduate school for a degree in Environmental Studies, I realized that I lacked practical skills that cannot be acquired in the classroom. Gaining field research skills was physically challenging, something my sedentary body was not used to. Having faith that my feet will somehow find solid ground even though the ground could not be seen is like having faith that my graduate degree will allow me to become an environmental leader in the future. Questioning the value of my degree, I decided to spend the summer expanding my studies.
The American Chestnut Restoration study, conducted in the Milford Experimental Forest in northeastern Pennsylvania, looks at the kinds of environment favorable for American chestnut trees. During the summer, I recorded the surviving chestnuts, their height, root collar diameter, basal area of surrounding trees, and canopy cover. The data is used to determine what kind of impacts light availability has on chestnut seedlings. This exercise increased my data collecting skills as well as my hiking skills. I was also a literal example of a tree hugger.
The questions that I kept pestering my mentor: Why should anyone care about the American chestnuts? What does the data collected mean?
It turns out that the United State’s economy was once supported by the American chestnuts. Prior to the 20th century, eastern United States had a robust timber industry consisting of chestnuts. The species’ ranged from Maine to Georgia, provided food for wildlife and livestock, and were a cash crop for many families in the region. During holidays, the chestnuts were packed into railroad cars and sent into big cities because of the “high demand for this finest-flavored of all chestnuts. American chestnuts are sweeter and less starchier than their Chinese counterparts,” according to my mentor who had the rare opportunity to taste the American chestnut (Pinchot 2013).
The tree was also valuable for timber. It grew straight and tall and was rot-resistant as redwoods. While the American chestnuts were abundant, they were widely used in building the country’s infrastructure (telegraph poles, railroad ties, heavy construction), housing (shingles and paneling), fine furniture, musical instruments. But that is no longer the case due to a fungus that was introduced into the United States at the turn of the 20th century. By mid-century, the American chestnut was virtually wiped from eastern forests (Pinchot 2013). Although seedlings and sprouts continue to grow from former American chestnut trees, these younglings rarely reach maturity. Studies to create blight-resistant American chestnuts are underway and should be commercially available in the next decade. The American Chestnut Restoration study is part of an effort to bring the chestnuts and timber industry back to its glory.
The experiment also accounts for economic viability for reintroducing the American chestnuts. The trees were planted from several forms: seeds (least expensive to purchase), bare-root seedings, containerized seedlings (most expensive to purchase – about five times as much as bare-root seedlings). Containerized seedlings allow the grower a wider time frame for planting the American chestnut compared to bare-root seedlings, which must be planted within a week or so after lifting (lifting refers to pulling the seedlings out of the soil in the nursery in preparation for planting). Containerized seedlings are less prone to transplant shock than bare-root seedlings because their root systems are kept intact. Bare-root seedlings lose a significant amount of their roots through the lifting process (Pinchot 2013). In general, the bare-root seedlings faired well due to the height advantage that they had over their peers. If landowners wish to reintroduce the American chestnut to their property, it is best to assess the landscape for the type of planting to be used in order to maximize survival, as the project can be expensive.
This study shows that science and economics are equally important.
On September 21, 2013, a panel discussion, Conservation in the Anthropocene, hosted by Pinchot Institute for Conservation at Grey Towers National Historic Site, tackled the daunting issue of climate change. More questions were raised than answers: What will it take for us to change our behavior and policies? How can action take place if only 35% of people in the United States believe that climate change will harm them personally? How do we create a science to policy framework? What skills will future environmental leaders need?
From what I learned so far, my degree in Environmental Studies (which include the sciences and policies) are not enough to fully understand the scope of environmental issues. The American Chestnut Restoration study is just one specific study with a specified goal that is within reach of success and it required an understanding of the science and economics. Climate change, a global issue with a variety of factors and impacts, will require more than just science, economics, and policies. Future environmental leaders will need to have tact in communications, data analysis skills, research skills, business sense, policy analysis, and probably more than I can think of. Are our educational institutions equipped to provide future environmental leaders with the skills they need? Well, that would require another leap of faith.
Edits partially contributed by Leila Pinchot, 2013, via e-mail correspondence.