Tom Klak receives 2021 Source Award for his efforts to restore the American chestnut tree

Tom Klak holding an American chestnut seedling
Tom Klak, winner of a 2021 Source Maine Sustainability Award

Tom Klak, Ph.D., professor in the School of Marine and Environmental Programs, is the recipient of a 2021 Source Maine Sustainability Award for his efforts to restore the American chestnut tree.

The awards are an annual recognition by the Portland Press Herald of people who contribute to the state's environmental well-being. This year, 70 people were nominated for awards. Only six were chosen.

“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,” Klak told the Press Herald.

Klak is on a mission to foster the comeback of the American chestnut tree. The tree was all but destroyed during the last century by an accidentally imported fungal blight that is still killing the few remaining trees today. The blight has wiped out an estimated four billion chestnuts.

UNE is the only place in New England where students are working with fungal blight-tolerant American chestnut seedlings. They are now speed-breeding the seedlings, helping them produce pollen in a fraction of the time it would take if they grew naturally.

Last summer, with USDA permission, Klak and his team pollinated the first wild chestnut trees with their blight-tolerant pollen — the first time the work had been done in Maine.

According to the Press Herald, 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.

“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, Ph.D., assistant academic director of the School of Marine and Environmental Programs. “He’s inspiring people to get involved in their own way, not to necessarily mirror what he’s doing.”