Despite community and government action, the blight killed “nearly 4 billion American chestnuts across some 300,00 square miles.” Its decline also led to the decline of oak trees in Southern Appalachia, as well as a decline of reliant wildlife species such as the Allegheny Woodrat and eastern wild turkeys. The tree had a cascading effect on its local food chains, affecting mammals, insects, and local water quality; and the American chestnut moth soon went extinct as the tree’s most reliant species.
The chestnut blight did not go unnoticed in forest management regulations. The Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 required the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop an “early warning system” to prevent potential forest epidemics, specifically citing the American chestnut blight as one that resulted in environmental and economic devastation. In the Forest Service’s Final Draft of the Early Warning System, the agency sets up a framework for an early warning system, again citing specifically to the chestnut blight when discussing the agency’s cooperative restoration efforts to restore the tree.
One of these cooperative efforts included an Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the American Chestnut Foundation (ACF) to “establish a framework for cooperative research and management activities necessary to maintain and enhance the eastern forest ecosystems by reintroduction of blight-resistant seedlings of Castanea dentata, or American chestnut.” The MOU establishes that the Forest Service will make national forest land available and provide assistance to the ACF’s breeding and restoration efforts to establish a healthy chestnut population in its native range. The ACF, working with Forest Service funding, has been breeding American chestnuts with more blight-resistant Chinese varieties to develop a hybrid tree that could potentially thrive in the tree’s former region.
However, one of these restoration efforts has garnered controversy. Recently, the USDA prepared a Notice of Intent to Prepare an EIS for the petition for a deregulated status for a blight resistant American chestnut tree, known as Darling 58, developed by the State University of New York. The tree is genetically engineered (GE) to release an enzyme that fights the fungal pathogen Cryphonectria parasitica, otherwise known as chestnut blight. This varies from traditional efforts, like that of the Forest Service, to use breeding to develop more blight-resistant trees.
In short, allowing the petition to move forward would result in the GE-tree gaining nonregulated status. Currently, the USDA is required to regulate the importation, interstate movement, or release of genetically modified organisms. Allowing for nonregulated status would allow for public distributionof seedlings to be planted in the chestnut’s native range. Importantly, this would mean releasing the seeds to the public without recordkeeping or reporting requirements about the tree’s development. If the deregulation petition is approved, Darling 58 would be the first genetically engineered tree approved in the United States and the first GE plant intended to grow in the wild.