Why White Oaks?
White oaks are the most abundant tree in eastern forests, and they’re also the most ecologically important. Wildlife from blue jays to black bears feast on their acorns, while their leaves and bark offer food and shelter for hundreds of species of butterfly and moth. White oak is also one of the most valuable woods around, prized for whiskey barrels, furniture and flooring.
Essential as white oaks are, their future is at risk. There are almost no young white oaks to take the place of older trees. Since 2016, American Forests has planted 2 million white oaks across 5,000 acres in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and other states. We also support forestry management tactics to enhance white oak habitat, such as controlled burns and selective thinning of less-desirable tree species.
Restoring white oak is particularly important as the climate crisis triggers extreme heat, drought and rainfall in the eastern United States. White oaks can tolerate wildfires and droughts that would kill or damage less-hardy trees. Their size and longevity mean that they can capture and store carbon for centuries. These traits make white oaks a vital tool in the fight to keep our forests healthy.
Why Are White Oaks in Trouble?
There are several reasons why the next generation of oaks is failing to grow. Lack of sufficient wildfire is one of the biggest. White oaks evolved to cope with frequent fire, and can re-sprout from their roots even if flames kill the entire trunk. Fires — both those sparked naturally by lightning, and those set intentionally by American Indian tribes — were a common feature of eastern forests for thousands of years. But as development encroached across the region, wildfire suppression became the norm.
Fast-growing, short-lived tree species such as beech, maple and birch now outcompete oaks for sunlight, space and resources. At the same time, skyrocketing whitetail deer populations are mowing down oak seedlings — a favorite food — while existing and introduced diseases are hammering oaks young and old.
How American Forests Is Restoring White Oaks
Each year, American Forests supports restoration projects to plant white oaks and help boost the survival of naturally regenerating white oaks. Our work involves four different forestry techniques:
- Planting white oak seedlings
- Setting controlled burns to clear away underbrush and less-desirable trees from white oak habitat
- Selectively removing less-desirable trees to open up space and sunlight for young white oaks
- Cutting down dying or unhealthy white oak trunks so healthy shoots can grow from the stump
In Indiana’s Hoosier National Forest, for example, we’ve partnered with the United States Forest Service to set controlled burns across hundreds of acres of white oak habitat. In Ohio’s Wayne National Forest, we support work to clear open patches in the forest so young white oaks get the sunlight they need to thrive. And in Kentucky and West Virginia, we’ve planted tens of thousands of white oaks and other trees to restore native forests to former surface mines.
Our White Oak Partners
American Forests works with local, state and national partners to identify and reforest areas that will benefit from white oak restoration. We are part of the White Oak Initiative, a coalition of nonprofits, universities, land agencies and business interests that works to ensure white oak sustainability across the trees’ range. The White Oak Initiative recently released an assessment and conservation plan that American Forests helped develop and will help implement. It features science-backed data and 10 specific forest management practices designed to provide long-term sustainability benefits for oak forests. The report predicts a significant decline in white oak populations over the next 10-15 years without sustained intervention. The goal is to urge industries, policymakers, conservation organizations and landowners to work together to support white oak sustainability. We have also partnered with whiskey-maker Bulleit — which depends on white oak to construct its whiskey and bourbon barrels — to plant 1 million white oak seedlings.