Chestnut trees may bloom again

There could be a new planting of nearly-extinct chestnut trees in town if the Wilton Land Conservation Trust is successful in its purchase of property at 183 Ridgefield Road.

The land trust is under contract to purchase the 13-acre property for $2,050,000 from the Foster Family Charitable Foundation (formerly real estate developer Jim Fieber), but the sale is contingent on getting a state grant to help offset the purchase price.

Donna Merrill, the land trust’s executive director, told the Board of Selectmen at a recent meeting that the grant is competitive and she requested the board’s support.

The land trust is applying for 65% of the purchase price, $1,332,500, the maximum allowable by the state grant. Merrill said the state may decide to grant the full amount or a portion of the request. Or it may reject the request completely.

So far, the land trust has received a $750,000 donation from the Bauer Family Foundation as well as other financial contributions, but is still working on fund-raising efforts to meet its share of the purchase price.

Large meadow

The bucolic property at 183 Ridgefield Road includes a large meadow with a vast array of native species including blue flag iris, milkweed, woodland geranium, and meadow grasses. Because there are few trees in the meadow, bird life is well-supported.

Although the property is approved for a five-lot subdivision, the land trust would like to preserve it as open space for passive recreation activities and educational purposes.

Under the land trust’s ownership, Woodcock Nature Center has expressed interest in offering environmental and meadow habitat education programs for children. The Wilton Historical Society has expressed interest in holding seasonal, small-group satellite programs for children and adults.

In addition, The American Chestnut Foundation would like to use one acre of the property to develop a strain of disease-resistant American chestnut trees. “This is a great opportunity to do something meaningful with a land trust in Connecticut,” said Bill Adamsen, a member of the Connecticut chapter of the foundation’s board of directors.

Adamsen, who lives on Drum Hill Road, said in addition to planting chestnut trees, the group would also conduct educational programs about the environment and forests.

He explained that chestnut trees made up 25% of the forests across America, including Connecticut, until the species succumbed to a massive blight in the early 1900s. The blight was caused by a fungus brought into the United States accidentally with a shipment of Asian nursery stock.

This was a huge loss on a number of fronts.

Preferred wood

The hardwood from chestnut trees was the preferred wood early Americans used for construction. The trees also produced a prodigious supply of nuts and was a huge food crop. “Officials would close schools when chestnut trees were producing in order to allow adults and children to collect chestnuts for themselves and animals,” Adamsen said.

The loss of millions of acres of chestnut trees produced disorder within America’s ecosystem. In some areas of the country, there was a drastic decrease in a number of wildlife species, including the squirrel, deer, Cooper’s hawk, cougar and bobcat populations. The blight also contributed to a decrease in river water quality, which negatively affected aquatic invertebrate populations. In addition to ecological impacts, the blight had severe economic impacts. Farmers who were dependent on chestnut timber sales were wiped out.

In order to restore the American chestnut, the foundation has a number of orchards where it is breeding blight-resistant chestnut trees. It’s a complex process and involves crossbreeding different chestnut varieties.  

Adamsen said the foundation would like to plant between 20 and 58 chestnut trees in an exclosure on the property, where the trees can be monitored and protected. The trees from this property, if successful, could help with the pollination and development of American chestnut trees elsewhere, he said.

In addition, this project would allow children to observe chestnut trees, and learn how to protect and restore them. “This is a great opportunity for kids to learn about ecology, ” Adamsen said.