Why Nature Matters: The American Chestnut

When Europeans first arrived in America, it was said a squirrel could leap from chestnut branch to chestnut branch, and in this way go from Georgia to New York without touching the ground. By 1950, the chestnut trees were gone.

In 1914, the Pennsylvania Chestnut Blight Commission issued its final report. The state of Pennsylvania had appropriated $275,000.00 (reference, p. 7) for the investigation of the Chestnut blight. In 1913 the state appropriated another $240,000, above and beyond the $165,000 the Federal government had spent to stop the spread of the disease.

The money and time spent could not stop the disease. By 1915, the federal government gave up trying to stop its spread, and by 1950 the last mature chestnut succumbed.

“The complete loss of the present commercial stand of chestnut in Pennsylvania, which, now that the Commission has ceased work, seems absolutely certain, is a calamity which will be fully realized only in the future,” said the 1914 report. (Reference, p. 10).

Modern estimates claim a cost of billions of dollars to the US economy. The Commission’s report says this:

In Pennsylvania the chestnut is especially valuable, standing in intimate relation to many of the leading industries of the State. It is distributed throughout the State, comprising at least one-fifth, possibly one-third, of the timber. It is naturally adapted to poor, hilly land not suited for agriculture, and will produce profitable yields of extract wood, fence posts, rails, etc., in 25 to 30
years; and ties, poles, and saw timber in 40 to 50 years. Because of its comparatively rapid growth, its superior ability to perpetuate itself by means of sprouts, and the great variety of its uses, the chestnut may be considered the most important forest tree in the State. The ease with which chestnut can be managed according to the principles of forestry made it, before the appearance of the blight, one of the principal species depended upon to solve the problem of the future timber supply of the State. On steep slopes, where the per cent. of chestnut is high, serious deterioration, washing of the soil, and reduction in water supply will undoubtedly follow the destruction of the chestnut trees.

And it wasn’t just a problem for Pennsylvania. A quarter of all hardwoods in the Appalachians and the surrounding region were chestnut trees.

The Chestnut was a highly nutritious staple of diet for humans and animals, and what nuts weren’t used locally were sold. Chestnuts could sell for 10 cents a pound, and a day’s work could collect 100 pounds – at a time when the average daily wage was $1.75. (Reference). One tree could produce 6,000 nuts in a year. (Reference). One train station in West Virginia reported 155,000 pounds of chestnuts passed through in 1911 (pdf link). Using the figure of 10 cents a pound, that’s $15,500 passing through a single mountain train station. Another account says that a day’s haul of chestnuts could amount to 7 bushels, and sold for four dollars a bushel.

The trees provided superior lumber for furniture, railroad ties, utility poles, fence posts, and coffins. “In these usages, no single species has been able to replace the chestnut.” The trees regularly grew 50 feet tall before they branched, providing long, straight, high quality boards. The trees also produced valuable tannin for leather processing.

The nuts were also important to farmers, who used them as free feed for their livestock, and to hunters. Some game animals like wild turkeys completely disappeared from an area when the chestnuts died off.

It’s impossible to get an exact estimate of the economic cost of the Chestnut blight. But billions of dollars might not be far off. To date, efforts to establish blight resistant trees have failed.

Some good audio documentation of the American Chestnut’s importance to Appalachian economy can be found here.

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