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Professor’s innovation leads to $10K forestry prize

Using an app, Scott Merkle aims to connect disease-resistant trees to the scientists who can help their species


They were called “ghost trees” because, after they died, American chestnut trees lost their bark and turned white, standing as a stark reminder of the magnificent plant it once was.

But while the trees were dying over a century ago, others managed to survive—only to be cut down anyway, while still healthy. As a result, trees that might have naturally survived chestnut blight or root rot—afflictions that caused the trees to die and turn into “ghosts”—were lost before we could find out what allowed them to survive in the first place.

Now, thanks to the inaugural Forest Innovation Reviews (FIRz) event, hosted earlier this month in Athens, a University of Georgia researcher will get an infusion of funds to assist with identifying healthy ash trees before they succumb to a similar fate as the American chestnut.

Scott Merkle, associate dean for research and professor at the UGA Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, was voted the top presentation among 10 given at the event. He will receive $10,000 to help engage citizen scientists to use the website and app to identify trees that are potentially resistant to disease and pests. The app then connects the trees with tree breeders, propagators and researchers to help confirm genetic resistance and produce trees for restoration plantings.

“The combination of these groups working together could result in pest and pathogen-resistant trees for landowners and others to plant in a relatively short amount of time,” said Merkle. “This approach involves no genetic engineering or even hybrid breeding. Instead, it uses the genes that our native trees already possess, but greatly accelerates the repopulation of the species using conventional breeding, plant propagation and planting.”

Today, the emerald ash borer is wreaking havoc on the population of ash trees, although there are some trees that appear to have some tolerance or resistance to the pest. Merkle plans to use the app to help identify lingering green ash or white ash trees and further test for resistance among the surviving population.

Carlton Owen, president and CEO of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, said the competition among the presenters was fierce. Topics touched on sustainable forestry, African American landowners, drones, innovative wood products and using artificial intelligence to create a forest inventory.

Each presentation was filmed and will be released online at a later date.

“FIRz is the nation’s first forum for surfacing the best new ideas for the health and future of our forests and the values and services that they provide for our planet,” said Owen.

The second annual event will take place at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities is a not-for-profit public charity that collaborates with partners in the public and private sector to advance transformative and sustainable change for the health and vitality of the country’s working forests and the communities that rely on them. For more details, visit

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