There’s a growing demand for wood from oak, especially white oak, but oak species are facing numerous threats, like climate change, invasive insects and diseases. Experts say white oak could start declining significantly in American forests in as little as 10 to 15 years. The U.S. Forest Service has developed a plan to regenerate oak in the Wayne National Forest in southeastern Ohio, but environmentalists are suing to stop it.
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White oak is trendy
White oaks can live 200-300 years or longer, growing up to 80 feet. The tree is favored by the bourbon industry, which along with whiskey, has grown 5.3% each year since 2017.
Federal law requires bourbon to be aged in new, charred oak barrels. “Otherwise, it’s something else,” explained Willie Woodard, plant manager at Speyside Cooperage in Jackson, a small town in southern Ohio. Speyside makes bourbon barrels. Without oak, “It could be considered a whiskey, but it wouldn’t be considered a bourbon,” he said.
To start the process, they need strips of white oak, called staves, which need to be aged. To do that, the staves are stacked high on huge pallets in a heated warehouse for about four months. “And then we’ll bring it in here, and then we’ll throw it into our kiln, which is right here,” Woodard pointed to what looks like large ovens.
Speyside procures the white oak from all over, including Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia — as far away as Iowa, and also right here in Ohio. “Pretty much wherever we can get logs where the white oak is growing,” Woodard said.
They have enough stored here for 32,000 barrels, but Woodard wishes it were three times that, enough for a year of orders. “That is probably our biggest challenge is to get enough of it,” he said.
And they’re not alone. Furniture makers, flooring companies, and others rely on white oak. It is also an ecological powerhouse, producing acorns that many birds, bears, turkeys and numerous other species rely on and is host to hundreds of species of insects.
But within a generation, it could disappear from American forests.
An uncertain future for white oak
A report by the White Oak Initiative, a cooperative project of industry and forestry groups, found that the species could, “decline significantly within the next 10 to 15 years, with more extreme declines over the next several decades.” Oaks are under threat from a variety of invasive insects, and competition from other tree species, like maples.
For white oak, a changing ecosystem has made it more difficult for saplings to become fully grown trees. Ohio State University natural resources specialist Dave Apsley, who is on the Initiative’s steering committee, says white oaks are out of balance in Ohio. “We’ve got a lot of older oaks, but we have very few on the bench to replace them.”
That’s true in many areas of the country.
To grow, white oaks need a mix of shade and sunlight. Young oaks are able to establish their roots in the shade of taller trees, but they need some sunlight to grow larger. Historically, fire opened up the canopy allowing sunlight onto the forest floor. Before European settlement, fire occurred naturally, and Indigenous people used fire as a tool.
Now, fire is rare.
“So we kind of went to the extreme and eliminated fire from most of these ecosystems for the last 90-plus years, and now we’re having some of the consequences,” Apsley said.
Apsley works with some of the tens of thousands of private woodland owners in southeastern Ohio to manage their land for white oak regeneration. Without fire, he says there are still forestry techniques that can work, but it takes many years. Most landowners want a quicker payoff and just remove the valuable trees.
“On most private lands, they’re taking the oaks out,” he said. “So you’re getting a double whammy. You’re getting rid of your seed source for the future, and you’re not providing enough sunlight to the forest floor.”
So even if there are young oaks, they won’t get the light they need to grow into larger trees.
U.S. Forest Service’s plan in the Wayne National Forest
“So, is it up to public lands to provide these habitats? Yes!” said Rachel Reed, a forest planner with the U.S. Forest Service, in a presentation posted online and updated in 2020, about a timbering project for the only national forest in Ohio, the Wayne.
The Sunny Oaks Project, as it is called, spans 25,000 acres with the stated goals of creating young brushy forest and regenerating oaks, with a preference for white oak.
“Growing trees and forests is a long-term activity,” Reed said at the hearing. “One needs to think decades into the future, and so if we take action on the National Forest, then we also become an example of sustainable forest management.”
The project includes logging on 2,700 acres, including 1,600 acres of clearcut — which means cutting everything down.
“How does clearcutting regenerate oak?” Reed asked. “This means that all of the trees would be starting back over from zero age, and the oaks then would have an advantage over other species that were present in the stand.”
“The idea itself is almost Orwellian,” said Nathan Johnson, public lands director for the Ohio Environmental Council, which is suing the Forest Service to stop the project.
“The idea that in order to save oak forests, we have to go in and cut them down on a very large scale. And it just seems really off. And in fact, it is,” he said. While walking through a section of the Wayne National Forest included in the clearcut plan, Johnson stops to take a closer look at some large white oak trees
“This enormous tree, it’s got to be hundreds of years old,” he said. “If the project goes forward, this will be gone. This will be cut down.”
A clearcut can attempt to mimic the benefits of fire in the forest, but according to Johnson, it only works if the oak saplings already have well-established roots.
And the forest service doesn’t have the data to know, he said.
Without enough already established young white oaks, opening up the forest floor to sunlight gives species like maple and tulip poplar an advantage. These trees often take over habitats that were once filled with oak.
“If those large numbers of large saplings are not in place, it’s just going to be a disaster. I mean, it’s all about competition,” Johnson said. “Those maples and tulips, they’ve got wind-dispersed seeds. When the canopy is open, they’re just going to outcompete what little oak infrastructure you’ve got in the ground.”
The lawsuit claims that the Forest Service project isn’t really intended to regenerate oak but instead to meet rising federal timber quotas. In 2019, then-President Trump issued an executive order to increase logging on federal lands. According to Johnson, that’s led to increased timber targets in the national forests like the Wayne.
“It’s the volume; that’s really what’s driving this thing,” he said.
Looking up at the giant old oak, Johnson speculates that federally endangered Indiana bats could be roosting under the loose bark. The OEC’s lawsuit states that “in a rush to meet rapidly swelling timber volume quotas, the Forest Service tossed aside the Wayne’s mandatory Indiana bat habitat tree retention Standard.”
The U.S. Forest Service declined to comment because of the lawsuit. In court filings, it claims that the project did consider the Indiana bat, and that in areas where regenerating oak is the goal, foresters will take extra care, with manual tree felling, herbicides and even prescribed fire.
The Ohio Forestry Association filed an amicus brief in support of the Sunny Oaks project, and the plan to clearcut some sections of oak.
“From forestry practice, this is a long accepted, scientifically based method for allowing white oaks to regenerate,” said Jenna Reese, the association’s executive director.
Loggers, barrel makers and other industries her group represents are dependent on oak for their livelihoods, Reese pointed out. So they need projects like this to be successful.
But Johnson worries that once white oaks are cut from the forest, they won’t grow back any time soon.
“This is irreplaceable. It could take another 200 or more years to get this sort of tree back, and unfortunately, because it’s a white oak, it probably never will,” he said.
The Ohio Environmental Council filed its latest brief in federal court in Columbus last week. The Forest Service has until the end of October to respond.
Correction: The story has been updated to reflect that the case is being heard in federal court in Columbus, not Cincinnati.