Tom Klak in the greenhouse at the University of New England in Biddeford. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Tom Klak spends countless hours in the lab, in woodlots and out in the community trying to grow a tree.

Specifically, Klak is on a mission to help restore the American chestnut tree, a species that was once a cornerstone of eastern U.S. forests but has been just about wiped out by fungal blight. In the 1800s, it was a still a crucial part of forest ecosystems, providing food for humans and creatures, fairly fast-growing lumber and a bumper chestnut cash crop for farmers.

Over the past six years or so, Klak has been working in the lab with students at the University of New England in Biddeford to grow blight-tolerant American chestnut seedlings, and he’s also dug the holes to plant saplings all around the state.

Klak says his passion to restore the American chestnut comes from his long-evolving belief that serious action is needed on many fronts to combat the “environmental crisis” we find ourselves in. But when he happened to stop at a booth manned by members of the Maine chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation several years ago at the Fryeburg Fair, his own personal action became clear.

“That’s when I realized this is what I’m going to be devoted to,” said Klak, 63, a professor of environmental studies in the School of Marine and Environmental Programs at UNE. “You can’t find a more important species to bring back to help the reversal of the ecological disaster we face.”

Klak was nominated for a Source award by several people, all of whom cited his passion, his focus and the real progress he has made in trying to develop American chestnut trees that will resist blight. He’s also training students and educating the public, including people involved with planting the trees in various Maine locations.


“It would be shortsighted to only talk about the scientific parts of Tom’s work; he’s done an incredible amount of training of students in ecological restoration and worked with so many different community members on test plots,” said Noah Perlut, assistant academic director of the School of Marine and Environmental Programs at UNE. “He’s inspiring people to get involved in their own way, not to necessarily mirror what he’s doing.”

Klak, who lives in Saco, grew up in Chicago and began his academic career by studying and teaching geography. He said over the years his interest and passion shifted more toward environmental studies and led to his work with the American chestnut.

Klak and his students have taken a gene from wheat to create seedlings that they hope will stand up to blight in the long run. Hundreds of the trees will be planted this summer, including in Cape Elizabeth, Klak said, as the effort to bring the American chestnut back continues. Other researchers and groups around the country working to bring the American chestnut back include the American Chestnut Research & Restoration Project at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York.

“As far as a species to bring back, there’s no other that could make a bigger positive impact on the forests east of the Mississippi River,” said Klak.

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