Saving the American chestnut: Asheville-based foundation hosts international summit Oct. 19-21

Nuts: The American chestnut once thrived in the Eastern U.S., especially the Appalachians. Efforts to revive the tree — decimated by an invasive fungus — are under way and show promise. Photo by Bill Rhodes.

Thanks to researchers, volunteers and an Asheville-based foundation dedicated to the project, the American chestnut may thrive again. Once common in Eastern U.S. forests, the species was decimated by a disease accidentally imported to the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

On Friday-Sunday, Oct. 19-21, the American Chestnut Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service will co-host a conference detailing efforts to develop blight-resistant seeds, plant trees and restore what was lost.

“So much of what the world is today, we realized, is because of the choices we make,” says Patrick McMillan, the conference keynote speaker. A renowned naturalist featured on ETV’s Expeditions with Patrick McMillan, he explains that the chestnut’s tale is one example of a “butterfly effect” caused by humankind’s individual actions on the natural world. A non-native chestnut species was “brought over from Eurasia to the New York Botanical Garden; [these trees] had blight, and within the next couple decades [American] chestnuts were wiped out everywhere,” he explains.

A professor and the director of Campbell Museum of Natural History at Clemson University in South Carolina, McMillan also observes that humankind is part of the biodiversity of the natural world; as such, we can have a negative or positive effect on the environment. “The choices you make are going to last a thousand years on this planet, regardless if anyone ever remembers your name — ever knows who you are. The world will never forget.”

But there is a chance to recover some of what was lost.

According to Paul Franklin, communications director for the American Chestnut Foundation, since 1983 the nonprofit has been dedicated to developing a blight-resistant seed. Since 2009, the foundation has made Asheville its home and planted restoration trees — nearly 10,000 saplings were reintroduced into the forest last year, he reports.

The Oct. 19-21 summit is the first of its kind, says Franklin, noting that the foundation hopes to strengthen its presence in Asheville and share the progress it has made.

In addition to McMillan’s address, attendees will be able to partake in a number of educational sessions throughout the summit, which will be held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, says Frankin. Session topics range from chestnut genetics and diseases to chestnut culture and history, and include scientific presentations as well as hands-on workshops in American chestnut planting and maintenance.

“A number of the workshops have been geared toward people who are simply enthusiasts who want [to know] more about what’s happening,” Franklin says. “We offer workshops on how to identify chestnuts, common pests — things you would encounter in your backyard.”

He adds, “We want to let people know we’re here and invite the general public to come in and experience what is happening with the chestnut. … This is one of the largest restoration projects of a species that has ever taken place, and it has taken us 30 years to get here.”

But as McMillan muses, “Nature is only nature if you include man. Once people start to understand that, there’s a chance of preserving life on the planet in the long term.”

Full registration for the summit includes meals, workshops, demonstrations and presentations. Day passes are available, and there are all-inclusive student passes for those with a valid student ID.  A variety of attendance options and prices are available for the Friday-Sunday event, which will be held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Asheville.

In addition, there are a number of special events, including a Saturday evening gala dinner featuring a performance by singer Sarah Tucker and guitarist Elijah McWilliams, and a presentation by Dr. James Hill Craddock of the University of Tennessee.

For detailed information, visit, contact the American Chestnut Foundation at or call 281-0047.

Freelance writer Jo-Jo Jackson is based in Asheville.

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