The American beech is a stalwart of the New England forest and a favorite of wildlife such as bears, deer, and turkeys, who thrive on its mast crop, beechnuts. But today the beech, threatened by disease, often ends up as a scrubby and aggressive competitor, pushing out other tree species. As an intern for the Monadnock Conservancy, Merrilee Frable, MS ’14, is involved in a project for her master’s thesis, exploring ways to discourage beech regeneration in favor of other hardwood species valuable to wildlife and the timber industry.
“Beech management is one of the biggest issues facing New England timberland,” said Rick Brackett, MS ’09, land manager for the Conservancy. “It used to be useful but now, because it doesn’t reach maturity, a lot of landowners are frustrated. Beech sends up a thicket which shades out other species. If you cut it back, you just make it worse. But it’s the only hard-mast provider in the northern forest for deer and turkeys; bears especially rely on beechnuts to fatten up for winter. So we need something to replace it.”
More Chestnut, Fewer Beech
The project will look at various ways to reduce the regeneration of beech so that competing species can get a foothold, in particular, the American chestnut. That’s the goal of another internship Frable is working on for the Conservancy—studying whether the chestnut, devastated by blight and overcutting in the last century, can make a comeback in northern New England and help replace the American beech. With its hard mast, shade tolerance, and affinity for similar soil conditions, the chestnut fills the same ecological niche as the beech. The American Chestnut Foundation has developed a new hybrid by crossing the American chestnut with a Chinese species highly resistant to blight. The hybrid is being tested in the field, in projects like the Conservancy’s.
Frable and Brackett have set up the beech and chestnut projects in the Maynard Forest in Gilsum, New Hampshire, on land donated to the Conservancy ten years ago. The organization is managing the forest as a long-term timber investment. It took off the first crop of timber in 2010 but since then, little has regrown because of the competitive beech and because a high population of deer browses back everything except beech.
Setting Up the Studies
The Conservancy received a three-year Conservation Innovation grant from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for the beech regeneration project. It fenced in three harvested plots for a study, designed by Frable and Peter Palmiotto, core faculty in AUNE’s Department of Environmental Studies, and the advisor for Frable’s thesis work, that will compare methods to reduce the regeneration of beech—by cutting it, killing it with herbicides, and fencing out deer. NRCS will assess which practices are most successful and cost-effective to cost-share with landowners.
In the other project, the Conservancy planted two plots of chestnuts, each close to an acre in size, and surrounded them with deer fencing. After seven years, the seedlings should be big enough to withstand chewing and antler-rubbing by the deer. “Our goal is to find out how it competes with beech and how it survives,” Frable said. She and the Conservancy hope that the American chestnut will someday thrive as part of a more diverse and resilient forest.
This project was made possible through a partnership between the Monadnock Conservancy, Antioch University New England, the American Chestnut Foundation, NRCS, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, and C&S Wholesale Grocers.
See photos of planting 130 chestnut seedlings in early May.