Endangered Species Handbook

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Saving the American Elm and Chestnut Trees

Project Summary
This is an action-oriented project in which students or individuals obtain seedlings of these endangered trees and plant them to help restore the species, which were once widespread.  For those living in areas outside the range of these species in Eastern North America, other threatened trees may be planted.
Both the American Chestnut and the American Elm have been decimated by diseases brought to the United States on wood or trees.  Millions of these magnificent trees have died, but within the past decade, plant geneticists  have produced disease-resistant types.  The Elm Research Institute distributes seedlings grown from trees that have natural resistance to Dutch Elm Disease and have survived exposure to it.  The tree that is cultivated by this institute is called the American Liberty Elm, and since 1983, more than 250,000 seedlings have been distributed to organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America and others, who grow them from seedlings, then sell them to local towns, public parks and organizations for planting.  The organization hopes to bring back the American Elm to Main Street America.  The Elm Research Institute also provides advice on saving diseased elms.  One teacher in Michigan organized local neighborhood groups who located diseased trees and succeeded in treating them to prevent their deaths.
The American Chestnut, a massive tree of eastern forests, made up about one-fourth of the original eastern forests in colonial times.  It provided nuts that were fed on by populations of the now extinct Passenger Pigeon, American Turkeys, Black Bears, squirrels and other wildlife.  These trees grew to heights of 100 feet or more and had deeply furrowed trunks, earning them the name "Eastern Redwood."  Their near-extinction has been catastrophic to forest ecosystems.  The Chestnut Blight that attacked them was first seen in 1904 on American Chestnut trees lining avenues near the Bronx Zoo, and apparently entered the country on another species of chestnut tree imported for botanical purposes.  Like Dutch Elm Disease, this disease cuts off nutrients and water, gradually killing the trees.  It has killed almost all American Chestnut trees in the east, and only a hundred or so remain in southern Canada.  Some trees that were planted outside the natural range, such as in Oregon, survive.  The stumps of American Chestnuts still produce sprouts that can grow up to 20 feet tall until they die from the disease.
Old-growth Longleaf Pine forests once covered millions of acres in the Southeast, with one of the world's richest diversity of forest floor plants and native wildlife, including the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.  These forests have declined to 2 percent of their original size, and many of their former denizens are endangered or gone.  The Southern Live Oak, a magnificent semi-evergreen tree that has a massive, spreading crown and twisted branches, has declined in many areas within its natural range.  These native trees should be brought back through massive planting programs.  In more Western areas, Redwood, native oaks and many types of pines and conifers have declined from former abundance and should be replanted.
o  Help conserve endangered trees, such as the American Elm.  Plant American Liberty Elms if you live in eastern North America.  The Elm Research Institute will send an application to those who wish to receive 500 to 1,000 free elm seedlings.  Teachers who wish to participate in the program must pledge several years commitment in order to care for the trees prior to their sale.  The trees are guaranteed if properly maintained, and the Elm Research Institute will replace any trees that die.  This is potentially a fund-raising program because the trees can be sold after a few years of care.  The Elm Research Institute can be contacted at 1-800-FOR ELMS; Fax 603-358-6305; website: http://www.forelms.org.
o  Plant American Chestnut trees if you live in the range of the east where this tree once grew.  The American Chestnut Foundation was formed in 1983 to save this species through selective breeding of resistant strains.  At present, they have succeeded in growing resistant trees and are developing seeds from these trees.  They distribute kits of resistant seeds, which can be grown in one’s back yard, for $50.  When they are old enough, they can be pollinated with pollen from blight-resistant trees being cultivated in Virginia.  This is somewhat more complex than the growing of American Elms, but for a high school class, it would be an excellent way of learning about plant reproduction while helping to save an endangered native tree.  A 17-year-old resident of Somerville, New Jersey, Timothy Van Vliet, is an enthusiastic supporter of the program and has grown a number of Chestnut trees in his back yard, one of which is 10 feet tall.  With more people like Timothy Van Vliet, the American Chestnut may return to its former abundance.  The American Chestnut Foundation can be contacted at P.O. Box 4044, Bennington, VT 05201, or telephoned at 1-802-447-0110.  Membership in the organization is $40. 
o Plant other threatened native trees.  Those who live in western North America can help a rare or declining species of tree.  Contact the Redwoods National Park (1111 Second St., Crescent City, CA 95531; and the Save-the-Redwoods League (114 Sansome St., San Francisco, CA 94104) for information on obtaining seeds and seedlings.  If one lives in the Pacific Northwest, native trees, such as Western Hemlock, Sitka Spruce and Western Red Cedar, have been reduced by 95 percent because of logging.  Replanting these magnificent trees will help to bring back these forests and provide habitat for the threatened Northern Spotted Owl, Marbled Murrelet and other native species.  Help protect the stands of these forests that remain by contacting organizations such as the Native Forest Council (P.O. Box 2190, Eugene, OR 97402); Save America's Forests, Washington DC (202-544-9219); and The Nature Conservancy (1815 N. Lynn St., Arlington, VA 22209; (703-841-5300).
Read "Smiles of Vanished Woods," Chapter 11 of Noah's Garden. Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards, by Sara Stein, which discusses the importance of planting only native trees and the threat of exotic species, such as the Norway Maple, which can crowd out indigenous species.  This book also stresses the importance of preserving old trees with hollow trunks and snags that wildlife can use and of planting understories of native bushes that hundreds of species of wild animals use for shelter and feeding.
Books and Publications
Audubon Society Field Guides to Trees (Eastern Region and Western Region).
  Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Dietrich, William. 1992. The Final Forest. The Battle for the Last Great
  Trees of the Pacific Northwest. Simon & Schuster, New York.
Elias, Thomas S. 1980. The Complete Trees of North America. Field Guide and
  Natural History. Outdoor Life/Nature Books. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New
Jonas, Gerald. 1993. North American Trees. Reader's Digest Press,
  Pleasantville, NY.
Leydet, Francois. 1969. The Last Redwoods. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco,
Menninger, Edwin A. 1995. Fantastic Trees. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
Peck, Robert McCracken. 1990. Land of the Eagle. A Natural History of North
  America. Summit Books, New York.
Stein, Sara. 1993. Noah's Garden. Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards.
  Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA.

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