The eight American chestnut seedlings outline a precise 30-foot square inside a high fence just off the main road through Lackawanna State Park.
With one at each corner plus one on each side of the simple configuration, the small trees await the future planting of yet one more — appropriately dubbed the mother tree — in the center.
That’s how park Manager Rob Barrese anticipates Lackawanna will do its part to help bring back a forest icon.
Decades after the American chestnut all but disappeared from the Eastern woodlands where it once reigned supreme, the victim of an invasive blight fungus introduced to the United States in the late 1800s, the majestic hardwood is poised to rise again at the state park.
The Lackawanna seedlings are part of a project spearheaded by the American Chestnut Foundation’s New York chapter and State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science & Forestry in Syracuse to produce pure American chestnut trees that are resistant to the blight.
Lackawanna is the first and so far only state park in Pennsylvania to participate.
Barrese, 42, a Carbondale native and Navy veteran who was named park manager in February, said he was interested in planting more trees at Lackawanna after the park lost so many ash trees to the invasive emerald ash borer.
The park’s environmentalist had some familiarity with the chestnut project and suggested Barrese contact Tom Huff, an American Chestnut Foundation New York chapter member who lives near Allentown and has helped set up a number of seedling plots in the Lehigh Valley and elsewhere.
At the turn of the 20th century, one of every four hardwood trees in the forests in and around what is now the 1,400-acre park would have been an American chestnut — a legacy that Barrese said gave the project an undeniable appeal.
Lackawanna agreed to host two of the chestnut plots. The second one, identical to the first, is in a field near the park’s group camp.
“This was an opportunity to engage in a project that could not only put trees back in the park but bring back a tree that was a keystone species,” Barrese said.
The key to the endeavor is the mother tree that will eventually be planted in the middle of the 30-foot square.
Developed by SUNY’s College of Environmental Science & Forestry after more than two decades of research, the tree is an American chestnut that has been genetically modified to be resistant to the blight.
Huff, 76, a self-described citizen scientist drawn to the New York chapter’s restoration project because of its emphasis on biotechnology, said in a telephone interview that researchers found they could neutralize the blight by adding a single gene from wheat to the American chestnut genome.
Unlike other efforts aimed at producing blight-resistant trees through backcross breeding with Asian chestnut varieties, which results in the addition of thousands of genes, the transgenic trees are more than 99.999% identical to wild-type American chestnuts, Huff said.
Right now, the transgenic tree is undergoing a stringent regulatory review by three federal agencies — the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.
“That is in process,” Huff said. “The feeling is in 2020 they will complete their review and, if the review comes back favorably, the tree will be releaseable to the public.”
That’s when Lackawanna State Park would get its mother trees.
Huff, who grew the American chestnut seedlings that he and other volunteers transplanted at the park in July, said those 16 trees are not blight-resistant and are ultimately doomed. In time, probably 15 to 20 years, all of them will succumb to the blight.
Before that happens, he said, they will perform an important function by pollinating the transgenic tree with pure American chestnut pollen. Because the nuts produced by the transgenic tree will be blight-resistant, they can be used to grow more blight-resistant trees.
“It’s so simple that it sounds complicated,” Huff said.
Although the timing will depend on how quickly the regulatory agencies complete their work, once the mother trees are planted at Lackawanna State Park, they should be producing blight-resistant chestnuts in three or four years, he said.
The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources views the Lackawanna project as a pilot program where the results will be monitored and possible new planting venues considered, spokesman Terry Brady said in an email.
DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn said in a statement the department longs to see the return of the American chestnut to Pennsylvania.
“Our Bureau of State Parks project at Lackawanna is the latest DCNR involvement in a foundation effort that has been supported by the department since its outset,” she said.
Barrese said the park chose the area along the main entrance road for one of the project sites because it wanted a highly visible location. Signs on the fence around the seedlings explain the project to visitors.
“The signage and the education are a big part of the project not just for us but for the American Chestnut Foundation,” Barrese said.
“They want people to see this. They want people to understand and get interested in it.”
Huff, a South Scranton native who remembers the blight taking the chestnut trees on Orchard Street when he was a child, said there are many reasons to revive the American chestnut.
It is a strong, straight-grained hardwood that is rot-resistant and grows four times faster than red oak or white oak, he said. Its bountiful nuts not only provide mast for wild animals but in times past were an important source of human nourishment.
“So why bring it back?” Huff asked. “One, it’s beautiful. Two, it makes commercial sense. And three, it’s a sustainable source of food. I could go on and on.”
American chestnut facts:
*American chestnut trees dominated eastern woodlands until the early 20th century. The trees, which reached 80 to 120 feet in height and 8 feet or more in diameter, were so common it is often said a squirrel could travel the canopy of chestnut trees from Maine to Georgia and never touch the ground.
*The species was nearly wiped out by the chestnut blight, a devastating infection caused by an exotic fungus accidentally brought to the United States from Asia in the late 19th century. In about 40 years, the blight killed between 3 billion and 5 billion chestnut trees.
*The American chestnut has not gone extinct. Some trees escaped the blight. In addition, because the blight fungus does not kill the root system underground, the species has survived by sending up stump sprouts that grow vigorously in logged or otherwise disturbed sites. However, those inevitably succumb to the blight and die.