Initiative Background

With continued globalization and a changing climate, threats to forests will increase in coming years potentially leading to catastrophic change to forest ecosystems. While traditional tree breeding and propagation approaches will continue to have a prominent place in forest management and restoration, the severity and types of threats facing the nation’s forested areas require the U.S. to respond more quickly to protect the future of our nation’s forests. Biotechnology may play a vital role in the ability to tackle today’s environmental problems. However, advances in biotechnology are needed to effectively address these challenges if forest health is to be maintained and enhanced. Further, it is important to determine the limitations of biotechnology for individual species restoration and for the protection from catastrophic loss. Acquiring this knowledge will enable better response to short- and long-term conservation needs and demands. We recognize that science is only part of the answer. Biotechnology can play a critical role in addressing forest health threats when strong societal support and robust regulatory processes undergird the use of these scientific tools.

Forest Health

Over the last 50 years, America’s forests have faced increasing stress from diseases, pests, fungi, pollution, changing climate, and other forces. The number of threats to tree species across the nation’s forests are the highest they have ever been. 81 million acres of public and private lands are at risk from insects and diseases in the U.S.

The American Chestnut

"You can still see American chestnut trees in the forests of the Southern Appalachians, but most are small, mere echoes of the giants that once fed wildlife and livestock and provided that famous spreading shade for farmhouses and city streets alike."

Historic American Chestnut In the first half of the 20th century, nearly 4 billion of these iconic trees were felled by a lethal fungus known as chestnut blight, and southern forests and their inhabitants were transformed by what has been called one of the greatest ecological disasters of all time. The American chestnut tree grew tall and straight - 80 feet or more high and several feet in diameter - and was often free of branches for the first 50 feet or so. Because of its strong wood, the chestnut was known in the Southern Appalachians as a “cradleto- grave” tree; its strong, rot-resistant wood served a multitude of purposes including home building, fencing—and of course, cradles and coffins." Excerpt from the June 2008 issue of CompasS. From the Southern Research Station (SRS), Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Read more from this issue.