MELISSA BLOCK, host:
You could say that what the elusive, fabled ivory-billed woodpecker is to the world of birding, the American chestnut is to tree lovers. The American chestnut was just about wiped out by blight in the early 1900s. They used to be giants in the eastern forests and everywhere. The claim was that a squirrel could travel the canopy of chestnut trees from Maine to Georgia and never touch the ground. Now they've pretty much disappeared.
Well Nathan Klaus has discovered a stand of rare American chestnuts on Pine Mountain in Georgia. He's a biologist with the state's Department of Natural Resources and he joins us now. And Mr. Klaus, tell us how you found these trees.
Mr. NATHAN KLAUS (Georgia Department of Natural Resources): Well, it was a case of dumb luck I guess. I was out hiking on Pine Mountain. It was a beautiful Saturday and hiking along the trail, I noticed a chestnut sprout brushed my leg and it just stunned me. The sprouts are all over up in the Appalachian Mountains, but you just never see them anywhere else in Georgia and I've always wondered why, because they used to be here. And so that really made me, you know, sit up and take attention.
As I walked along, I was looking at every single tree off in the distance and I was just even more amazed when there was this beautiful, almost mature chestnut tree up in the canopy with the surrounding oaks.
BLOCK: And you could tell right away?
Mr. KLAUS: Oh yeah. They're very distinctive. And I've never seen a full-grown American chestnut before, but I knew immediately what I was looking at. Something about it, the way the light comes through the leaves is just different. It seems to let a lot more light through and there's just sort of an elegance to the tree that it just stands out among all those sort of wind-blasted gnarled oak trees that are up on that mountain. So it just was sort of shining there and it was almost impossible to miss.
BLOCK: And how many did you find?
Mr. KLAUS: Well we found at least a half a dozen what I would call trees right there. And just the last time I was out there with the American Chestnut Foundation, we stumbled across another one. So I think if we spent some time surveying that ridge, we would probably find many more and we might find some bigger trees.
BLOCK: Can you tell how old they are? How big are they?
Mr. KLAUS: Well they're up there in the canopy with the surrounding trees. So they're, it's hard to say exactly how old they are. If I had to take a guess, I'd say they're somewhere between 20 and 40 years old. But we don't want to actually core them, because that would give the blight potentially an opportunity to get into these trees. And if it isn't in them now, we certainly don't want to cause it to get in them.
BLOCK: Well how do you figure that these chestnut trees have managed to, at least so far, escape the blight?
Mr. KLAUS: That's a mystery. It has everybody scratching their heads. The thinking is that perhaps Pine Mountain is just so dry that the blight, which is a fungus, just can't get a leg up out there. You know it needs moisture conditions to attack these trees. And so this might end up being a neat little refugia for this species.
BLOCK: And the idea is that you might be able to take whatever it is that these trees have that's let them survive and maybe propagate it.
Mr. KLAUS: Well that would be the ideal situation. We're definitely going to try to incorporate their genes into the breeding program. And even if they're not, you know, somehow magically resistant to the blight, it's still really important to bring them in. Because these are trees from way further south than we've ever had and they're very likely unique in many ways. And that'll allow us, someday when do have a resistant tree that has been developed one way or the other, to plant trees with Georgia genes back into Georgia.
BLOCK: Mr. Klaus, did you have a phone out there in the woods?
Mr. KLAUS: No, I didn't.
BLOCK: I was just wondering what the first call you made was when you got back home.
Mr. KLAUS: Well, I told some of my botanist friends about it. It's a little bit like, I guess, saying that you saw Bigfoot or a black panther or something like that. I really didn't want to tell too many people about it. I wanted to make absolutely sure I was right about it before I told everybody.
BLOCK: And then what did you say?
Mr. KLAUS: I said, you're not going to believe what I found. It was spectacular just to find these, I would've been amazed to have found chestnut sprouts this far south. That would've made my week. Finding a whole stand full of trees made my year.
I mean American chestnuts, I think your comparison to ivory-billed woodpeckers is appropriate. I think that there are just some species out there that everybody who has a conservation ethic really longs to try to correct some of those wrongs. And ivory-billeds are one of them and American chestnut's another one. You just, you hear these stories about the mountaintops covered and the blossoms in the spring and it just makes you want to see that again.
BLOCK: Well, Nathan Klaus, congratulations on your find and thanks for talking to us.
Mr. KLAUS: You're very welcome. Thank you.
BLOCK: Nathan Klaus is a senior wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He spoke with us from his home in Culloden, Georgia.
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