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Endowment To Support American Chestnut Tree Research

March 20, 2000
University Park, Pa. – The American Chestnut once made up one third of American forests. Today most chestnut trees in the United States are little more than stumps that sprout and occasionally flower, but rarely produce fruit.

In the early 1900s, a fungus thought to have been brought over from Europe spread to the United States, affecting the chestnuts, which had little immunity to the disease. Penn State’s School of Forest Resources wants to return the American chestnut to its role as one of the most important trees in the country’s forests by discovering ways to help it become self-sustaining.

To that end, the school will conduct research focusing on establishing experimental chestnut stands, and will collaborate with the American Chestnut Foundation, a non-profit organization with headquarters in Vermont, and Penn State’s Louis W. Schatz Center of Tree Molecular Genetics.

The new research and experiments have been made possible through a $50,000 endowment from Penn State alumnus David Robertson and his wife, Ruth.

David Robertson earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry in 1942. After graduating, he spent 12 years managing rubber plantations in West Africa for Firestone, a tire and rubber company, and then spent 20 years in South America and West Africa working for the United States Agency for International Development. The Robertsons reside in Framingham, Mass.

"I have been interested in chestnut trees all my life, beginning with the stories my father told me about them when I was a child," said David Robertson. "Disease wiped them out in a period of 40 to 50 years in the early twentieth century, and it has been a tremendous loss. The nuts made up an important part of the diets of local people as well as nearly all species of native wildlife. American chestnuts were 30 percent of American forests and they were also a very important source of timber."

Penn State will work with the American Chestnut Foundation on planting trials of blight resistant strains of chestnut. "This involves developing a ‘back-crossing’ program that uses resistant trees that come from Asia," explained Larry A. Nielsen, Director of the School of Forest Resources. "But those trees are bushier and not as high-quality, so we want to cross the disease resistance of the Asian chestnut with the constitution of the American.

"Along with back-crossing, the Robertson Endowment will allow our faculty researchers to use molecular genetics techniques to develop disease resistance and to rediscover ways to grow chestnuts in natural conditions so they can again become a part of our hardwood forests," said Nielsen.

With the research supported by the Robertsons’ gift, the rebirth of the American chestnut may be on the horizon.

For more information on the work being done by Penn State’s School of Forest Resources, visit the web page: