Dozens of volunteers – some traveling from as far as Virginia – planted thousands of seedling trees in Bennett Branch Forest in Elk County. They wrapped up a project that ultimately resulted in the planting of more than 20,000 trees on 30 acres of a reclaimed surface mine site.
The American Chestnut Foundation, the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, Green Forests Work, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and other partners worked together on the event, which concluded on Saturday, May 11. The partners, workers and volunteers planted blight-resistant chestnuts and native hardwoods.
A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service provided financial support for the tree planting.
On most of the 30 acres, volunteers and workers planted a mix of native hardwood species that have proven to be good, hardy trees at other reclaimed surface mine sites. The plants were a mix of about 18 native species, including white oak, northern red oak, black locusts and cherry.
Volunteers at the site included Don Schmidt, 68, of Dubois. A member of Pennsylvania Wildlife Habitat Unlimited, Schmidt was eager to help out on a project that could reforest the region’s exceptional natural places.
“I was raised here, so it’s wonderful to see the forest, land and water improve for everyone to enjoy,” Schmidt said.
Within the 30 acres, volunteers planted various types of chestnuts, including potentially blight-resistant American chestnuts, in a one-acre, fenced-in area.
“This is not only a reforestation project, but also a study of our potentially blight-resistant American chestnuts,” said Michael French, a forester with the American Chestnut Foundation.
After the planting, the project partners will enlist local volunteers to monitor trees planted in the fenced-in area. They will be looking for varying levels of blight resistance and growth patterns.
American chestnuts once heavily populated forests in the eastern United States, standing up to 100 feet tall and numbering in the billions. In 1904 a blight, accidentally imported from Asia, spread rapidly through the American chestnut population. By 1950 it had killed virtually all the mature trees from Maine to Georgia.
In 1983, a dedicated group of scientists formed The American Chestnut Foundation and began a special breeding process, which in 2005 produced the first potentially blight resistant trees called Restoration Chestnuts 1.0. Now assisted by almost 6,000 members and volunteers in 23 states, the organization is undertaking the planting of Restoration Chestnuts in select locations throughout the eastern US as part of the Foundation’s early restoration efforts.
The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy permanently protected the Bennett Branch Forest in early 2008. The majority of the 5,340 acres of scenic hardwood forest in Elk and Clearfield counties that make up this property was transferred to the Pa. Bureau of Forestry as a permanent addition to Moshannon State Forest. However, the Conservancy retained a 1,470-acre portion of the land in order to manage the forest resources sustainably and carry out restoration projects.