American Chestnut Harvest at Lesesne State Forest

Chestnut trees have all but disappeared from the landscape; the Virginia Department of Forestry recently had a rare opportunity to harvest pure American chestnut wood.


The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) maintains a chestnut research project at Lesesne State Forest in Nelson County, VA. American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once a common deciduous tree in many eastern North American forests and was valued for its nuts, lumber products and firewood. However, the chestnut blight fungus (Endothia parasitica) introduced in the early 20th century spread throughout the natural range of chestnut, killing virtually all chestnut trees by mid-century.

Research conducted at sites like Lesesne State Forest contributes to the development of chestnut tree varieties that are genetically resistant to the blight; these resistant trees are developed through a complex backcrossing program in which American chestnut trees are crossed with Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) which are resistant to the blight. Through backcrossing, research foresters are collectively developing chestnut trees that are 15/16th American in genetic makeup and also have high blight resistance. (Read more about American chestnut research from the American Chestnut Foundation.) Research shows promise, but success is still years away.

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Pictured: Bill Perry (area forester) and Charlie Becker (utilization and marketing manager)

On a portion of the research plots in the state forest, several small stands of pure American chestnut (Castanea dentata) exist; because of the blight that has impacted chestnut trees in North America, it is incredibly rare to find specimens that are 100% American chestnut and not a hybrid with Chinese chestnut. Other plots within the forest contain hybrid varieties of chestnut trees.

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Charlie Becker saws fallen chestnut logs. 

When several of the American chestnut trees started to die earlier this year, VDOF decided to harvest the lumber so as not to miss this rare opportunity to obtain pure chestnut wood. Charlie Becker (utilization & marketing manager) was motivated to ensure the trees will not go to waste. He said, “While some people may just see great firewood with these logs (which would be a fine use), we know there is a unique opportunity here for more research and special projects. You just don’t get the chance to harvest pure American chestnut now.”

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On October 29, a team of VDOF staff performed a harvest of three American chestnut trees and two different hybrid chestnut specimens and recovered several fallen logs of unknown hybridity. The harvest team consisted of Charlie Becker, Bill Perry (area forester) on the chainsaw and bulldozer, Joe Lehnen (utilization and marketing specialist) and Chris Cox (utilization project developer). Together, the team fell the trees, cut them into logs and labeled each specimen according to its plot of origin.

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Bill Perry saws the harvested logs. 

Bill Perry mused on the advancements in technology in the decades since American chestnuts had been regularly harvested. While the harvest crew this October relied on chainsaws and heavy equipment to harvest and sort the timber, harvest technology would likely have been more primitive the last time a substantial pure chestnut stand was harvested.

There are several chestnut restoration projects underway in Virginia; the October harvest contributes to research into viable markets for chestnut wood products, which may, in turn, support restoration efforts.

For one purpose, the harvest will contribute to ongoing, informal research about chestnut wood properties, durability and market viability; for example, it is useful to know if hybrid chestnut wood has similar decay resistance to pure American chestnut, such that it may be used for fence posts – a once important market for American chestnut wood product. The wood harvested may also be used in more formal research to identify and compare the structural and mechanical differences in the wood of pure versus hybrid chestnuts.

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Pictured: (left) Bill Perry, Charlie Becker and Joe Lehnen (utilization and marketing specialist); (right) Joe Lehnen and Chris Cox (utilization project developer)

Additionally, the harvest provided a source of wood for an upcoming workshop about log grading, lumber and wood drying, hosted at VDOF James W. Garner building in Charlottesville on November 7. Pre-registered workshop attendees will have the unique opportunity to participate in the milling of pure chestnut wood. Once the wood is milled into usable planks, Charlie Becker and the marketing and utilization team will identify appropriate uses or projects for the wood (in addition to research initiatives). Such projects may include educational demonstrations, wood type displays at the VDOF Headquarters or possibly even furniture built by local artisans.

Related Media:
NBC29: Virginia Sawyers Cutting American Chestnut Trees for First Time in Decades, November 11, 2019

 

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today April 5, 2018

by VDOF Area Forester Lisa Deaton

Wildlife and Clearcuts Part 2

A beaver hut in the middle of a pond or swamp is a familiar sight.  The one above is located in Beaverdam Swamp in Gloucester County.

While mapping a creek for another Riparian Buffer Tax Credit application, I had the opportunity to see a number of signs of beaver activity alongside a clearcut.

beaver dam (1)

First, I came across the beaver dam above.  The beavers have built their dam in a breach of an old earthen dam.

beaver stump (1)

Then I walked by some recent beaver chewing activity.  Beavers do not eat the entire tree after they cut it down.  They consume the nutritious inner bark by chewing on twigs and branches similar to the way that people eat corn on the cob.  Note that this beaver left the pieces from the center of the tree on the ground instead of eating them.  While beavers might cut down very large trees, they are really trying to access the numerous smaller branches at the top of the tree.

beaver bites (1)

Can you imagine having jaws and teeth strong enough to bite pieces of wood this large from a tree?

beaver skid trail lo res (1)

What was most unusual was the beavers’ clever use of the adjoining 30-acre clearcut.  There were a number of paths on the edge of the beaver pond where beavers had traveled between the cutover and their pond to glean loblolly pine branches.  In the photo above, the yellow arrow follows the center of their trail to the water’s edge, and the pink arrow points out some pine branches that the beavers snacked on along the way.   This path was so heavily traveled that it looked like a smaller version of the skid trails in the cutover.

beaver water entrance (1)

At this water entrance (above), the beavers have chewed on the American beech tree on the left.  In the water, there are more twigs that have been stripped of all their bark.

Beavers have been harvesting trees for several million years in North America, while humans have walked the planet for about 200,000 years.  So perhaps it is fair to say that beavers have more logging experience than we do.  At this site, they were shrewd enough to benefit from human logging activity in their search for wintertime food.

pine branches