Contractors working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District install a 23-foot-tall concrete shaft enclosure weighing approximately 120,000 pounds as part of the guard wall at the Monongahela River Locks and Dam 4 in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, Nov. 16, 2023.

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Reviving History: Patoka Lake’s new orchard aims to regenerate American Chestnuts

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District
Published April 26, 2024
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District Park Ranger, Jim Merkley, explains planting procedures for the American Chestnut seedling to the volunteers at Patoka Lake, Dubois, Ind., Apr. 26, 2024.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Louisville District Park Ranger, Jim Merkley, explains planting procedures for the American Chestnut seedling to the volunteers at Patoka Lake, Dubois, Ind., Apr. 26, 2024. Each seedling planted was marked with a white flag for tracking purposes and to highlight the seedling's location to prevent accidental damage.

A project vision has come to fruition at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Patoka Lake in Dubois, Indiana – The Patoka Lake American Chestnut Regeneration Study Orchard. This project not only revives history but also embodies the spirit of community collaboration and environmental stewardship.

Together, a multi-agency team of volunteers has planted nearly 300 American Chestnut trees at Patoka Lake with a collective aim to plant blight-resistant American Chestnut trees, allowing all to witness and study the historic return of this native tree species.

The project began with a simple yet profound goal – to reintroduce the first stand of American Chestnuts to USACE properties in Indiana. The staff at Patoka Lake envisioned a sustainable future for a plot of land near the project office by partnering with organizations like The American Chestnut Foundation, the Boy Scouts of America, Northeast Dubois High School, the Dubois Ruritan Club and Dubois Rural Electric Cooperative.

“The community has been really excited about working on this project,” said Merkley. “It is a great feeling to help bring a tree that is ‘functionally extinct’ back to its native range for public viewing and future study.”

According to the American Chestnut Foundation, the American Chestnut was a dominant species throughout the Eastern United States, the American Chestnut played a vital role in both ecosystems and human livelihoods. However, the devastating effects of the chestnut blight brought it to the brink of extinction. Now, through dedicated research and conservation efforts, Patoka Lake is proud to be part of the historic endeavor to restore this iconic tree.

Extensive preparation was necessary to determine if the project would be viable indefinitely. Patoka Lake Manager Steven Rector and Park Ranger Jim Merkley conducted a feasibility study, ensuring compatibility with soil conditions, slope, other environmental factors and potential availability of trees.

The team reached out to current and future partners to gauge interest in the potential project, including participation in the Partnership Handshake webinar last fall, then subsequently applying for a Handshake Award. The Patoka Lake American Chestnut Regeneration Study Orchard project was one of six selected throughout all of USACE to receive the Handshake Award. The award fully funded the supplies and materials needed for the project.

Protected by seven-and-a-half-foot tall deer exclusion fences, the plot of land measures roughly half an acre is now home to nearly 300 American Chestnut trees. While expectations are tempered by the experimental nature of the project, the goal is for 50-75 percent of the trees to reach full maturity, paving the way for even more blight resistant trees in the future.
For the team at Patoka Lake, the most rewarding aspect of the project is the opportunity to educate and inspire future generations.

“Our favorite part of the project has been educating our partners, high school agriculture students and Boy Scouts. Seeing the excitement when people realize how important their work is, not only for today, but for their children and grandchildren in the future. We also look forward to introducing and educating the public through programs, open houses, and tours for years to come.”

Chick Lock

Through deeds, not words, we are BUILDING STRONG®