Group aims for revival of American chestnut tree

Sara Fern Fitzsimmons always saw herself in a job working with trees — a job that did not involve contact with a lot of people.

Today, Fitzsimmons works with a range of volunteers, leading a group whose goal is to restore the once-prevalent American chestnut tree.

“I’ve met the most amazing people in my job,” Fitzsimmons said. “The volunteers that we work with have no formal training in science. They are doctors, engineers, farmers, hunters, you know, who’ve all had some sort of connection with chestnut (trees) and want to help.”

Fitzsimmons is the chestnut regional science coordinator supervisor at Penn State and the tree breeding coordinator for the American Chestnut Foundation. Her job focuses on breeding American chestnut trees that are blight-resistant.

Once a dominant hardwood in America’s vast forests, the American chestnut became infected by blight from Asian chestnut trees that carried the fungus to the Northeast coast. The earliest reported case of chestnut blight, which is caused by the Endothia parasitica fungus, was in 1904, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service.

According to the American Chestnut Foundation, some 4 billion American chestnuts, one-quarter of the hardwood tree population, grew within range of being infected.

Researchers want to create a population of chestnuts that aren’t going to be killed by the fungus and can grow to the point of reproduction to become a healthy species, she said.

The 36-year-old Fitzsimmons, strong in stature and calm in temperament, was born and reared in Hinton, W.Va., which drove her love of nature.

“I spent a lot of time in the woods,” she said. “I mean, there’s not a whole lot to do in southern West Virginia. We recreated outside.”

In the late 1800s, the American chestnut tree held cultural and traditional importance, she said. Wealthy families, for example, would go “chestnutting,” where people would pick chestnuts in the fall.

The tree’s economic value was in the quality of its wood. According to the chestnut foundation, the wood is “straight-grained and easily worked” as well as “lightweight and highly rot-resistant,” ideal for building.

Fitzsimmons left her home in the woods to attend Drew University in New Jersey but never lost herself or her love of nature. She studied biology and continued her education in forestry at graduate school at Duke University and later North Carolina State University.

An internship with the chestnut foundation between her first and second year of grad school eventually led to a full-time position and later to a job at Penn State. Her work takes time and has become a part of nearly every aspect of her life, Fitzsimmons said. She likes to be out in nature and does mountain biking during her down time.

She also used to explore caves when she first came to Penn State because it was the one activity she could do where she wasn’t around chestnut trees.

“My work influences what I do personally and what I do personally influences my work,” she said.

Kendra Gurney, a colleague at the chestnut foundation, said Fitzsimmons is passionate about her work in the fight to restore the American chestnut tree.

Kim Steiner, professor of forest biology and director of The Arboretum at Penn State, said Fitzsimmons’ work “with Pennsylvania and the surrounding states (is) invaluable.”

Fitzsimmons said that if one day the work that she and many others have done makes the American chestnut blight-resistant, she would like to tackle other areas of forestry. She said she hopes that her work can some day play even a small role in helping others understand diseases in many other trees.

Meanwhile, as the West Virginia native has been working to change the life and outcome of the American chestnut tree, her job has, in turn, changed her.

“I’ve had my perspective about life enhanced, improved, challenged by the diversity of people that I’ve met in this job, which is really fantastic for me,” she said. “It’s these interactions where I can spend time with these just really interesting people, learning about their lives and what brought them to that point, that has been life-changing to me.”