Maine’s Central Aroostook Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is working with Universities of Maine in Presque Isle and Fort Kent to combat neonectria and repopulate forest beech trees.
“Beech trees play such an important part in Maine’s forest ecosystem,” Central Aroostook SWCD Executive Director Randy Martin said. “Aside from the fact that it is a very important hardwood species, the amount of food that beech trees produce for wildlife is critical to Maine.”
Martin and university students are cloning neonectria-resistant beech trees using explants from mature American beeches that show no signs of the deadly fungus, despite growing among disease-infected trees. Tissue collections are cultured and grown in a lab. When the clones reach between 12 and 15 inches tall, they will be planted in trials and monitored for up to 15 years to determine neonectria resistance. Infected regrowth will grow alongside the cultured plants to mimic natural forest conditions.
Seven Islands Land Management Company will provide the steep-sloped, shallow soil trial areas for the 60,000 cloned trees, and Fort Kent University will host a trial in its university forest. Central Aroostook SWCD plans to plant the saplings in 2021.
Neonectria is not a new disease, but changing climate conditions have contributed to the more recent increase in its prevalence and destruction of larger beech trees, Martin said. Martin is a teacher at Presque Isle, where he and his students began collecting tissue in November 2019. Martin is also receiving help from high school students who are interested in the project.
“Since no one has done it before, it’s at that experimental phase where you have to bump your way through it,” he said. “We’re really at the infantile stage of this process, but it’s moving fast.”
With no prior research to follow, Martin is learning how the beech tree cultures respond to different growth regulators, and he is tweaking the growth regulator for the optimum result. He plans to publish the work yet this year so the methods will be available for other areas across the country, and potentially into Canada, where beech tree populations are affected by the fungus.
“It’s something near and dear to my heart,” he said. “Landowners are interested in this, and it can be applied across borders.
“It’s a way to show our cooperators that we’re here for them, and we’re working for them,” Martin said. “It’s an excellent legacy for this district if it’s successful and continues to move forward.”
To learn more about this project, please contact Martin at centralaroostookswcd[at]gmail.com.