Chestnut Ridge Park is a destination for hiking and tobogganing but although it is lush with flora and fauna, many Western New Yorkers may be surprised to learn the park doesn’t actually contain any chestnut trees.
Due to blight, chestnut trees have been absent from the park for several decades. Erie County officials are hoping to change that. In celebration of Arbor Day, dozens of American Chestnut seedlings were reintroduced to the 1,200-acre Orchard Park nature destination on Friday.
The trees, which can grow up to 100 feet tall, played an important role in fueling America’s industrialization. Rural communities used the trees to feed livestock and chestnut lumber helped build towns as the American Dream drove settlers westward. That and the accidental import of a fungal pathogen from Asia in the 1950s led to a severe shortage of chestnuts across the nation and in western New York.
Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Forestry Daniel J. Rizzo planted nearly 50 seedlings throughout the park Friday morning. Poloncarz explains a plant-based disease created by an invasive fungus is to blame for the trees’ absence.
“There are still some chestnut trees in this region, some that have survived the blight, basically lonely sentinels on the horizon,” Poloncarz said. “But when you talk about Chestnut Ridge Park, unfortunately we have not had them.”
The seedlings were planted in groups of two to three with the hope that spreading out the population will prevent blight from spreading. Poloncarz said the trees were once a symbol of the region, something he hopes the current effort will restore.
“One of the distinguishing features for decades of course were the majestic American chestnut trees that were on this slope here, on this ridge,” Poloncarz said. “They were throughout the entire park. But unfortunately the blight that struck the vast majority of chestnut trees in the United States took out, as we best know, almost every single tree that existed in Chestnut Ridge Park. ”
For Poloncarz, the reintroduction of chestnut trees to their namesake park is a way to restore its past glory
“This is in a labor of love for a lot of people here because we do want to see the chestnut tree restored to Chestnut Ridge Park,” Poloncarz said “It is something that a vast majority of Americans probably never have seen – a true chestnut tree, like it used to exist.”