- The Washington Times - Monday, December 3, 2001

Roasting chestnuts on an open fire it's a vanished Yuletide tradition that geneticists are making possible once more. And therein lie the seeds of debate.
Scientists working in the laboratories of academe and industry are altering the genetic makeup of trees to create super specimens that will grow faster, devour pollutants and resist disease, drought and insect pests.
Some environmentalists, however, object that the researchers are "playing God" with trees and taking risks that could lead to "silent forests," devoid of small plants or birds.
"Genetic engineering challenges the conception of what is natural and raises the hackles of all sorts of people who want a wild landscape, not an engineered or modified one," says historian and author Char Miller of Trinity University in San Antonio.
Mr. Miller writes about the environmental movements and people's relationships with nature. He says in an interview:
"This is a hot issue. At Michigan Tech University a couple of weeks ago, they found two bombs outside the genetic engineering department. The bombs didn't explode. The timers were faulty.
"But why would people try to hinder the genetic research? They fear the manipulative power of science and the expertise that shapes the food we eat. They don't want geneticists to construct the aesthetics [of woodlands and forests] that we appreciate. The objection comes from the long-standing romantic sense that nature is best left untouched we're looking at something that hits a cultural nerve when we talk of genetically engineering trees."
Although the tree-modifying issue is potentially volatile, it has received little public attention. To remedy that and to encourage debate on the issue, the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, a nonpartisan public service group; the Society of American Foresters, a professional group; and the Ecological Society of America, a nonpartisan society of scientists, are sponsoring a conference in Atlanta this week.
In Atlanta, researchers and representatives of the lumber industry and environmental groups will gather to "showcase [their] diverse points of view" and inform the public, as a statement by the sponsors puts it.
What Mr. Miller calls the romantic and cultural aspects of the issue are especially at stake in scientists' work with the American chestnut and elm, and with the pines and firs that traditionally decorate homes during the Christmas season.
Decades ago, the large, sweet nuts harvested from stately American chestnut trees often 100 feet tall commonly were served as holiday treats from Maine to Michigan and points south. The chestnuts disappeared, however, when a disease imported from China at the turn of the century wiped out 3.5 billion of the nation's American chestnut trees, which constituted a third of Eastern forests.
The blight was one of history's worst and fastest. By the 1940s, it had destroyed an industry built on chestnut wood, which was weather-resistant and was used for everything from fence posts to quality furniture. Now scientists are reviving the American chestnut through a combination of genetic research and traditional tree-breeding techniques.
Scottish scientists announced in September that they had created the first elm trees genetically altered to resist Dutch elm disease. That plague has ravaged the graceful species, called "the lady of the forest," that for generations shaded many of America's city streets. If political objections are overcome, the transgenic plantings will be sprouting in woodlands and neighborhoods within a few years.
Gene transfer work comes mainly as a response to economic demands. Lumber companies want to produce wood fiber more cheaply and guard against timber shortages. The average American uses some 750 pounds of paper a year and consumes the equivalent of a 100-foot tree in paper and wood products.
To meet demand, the companies envision developing special plantations of genetically modified trees.
That idea alarms environmentalists, who say that blooming transgenic trees will fertilize and corrupt normal trees. They say the mutants eventually will crowd out natural growth.
Faith Thompson Campbell, an official of the environmental group American Lands Alliance, contends that fast-growing genetically modified trees "can rapidly deplete soil fertility and water resources." She argues that tree plantations "may finance and justify [the] clearing of even more native forest on the heels of centuries of such clearing spurred by other forms of agriculture."

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