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Forest Service partners with NGOs to stem the tide of white oak decline

 WISCONSIN – A newly released report highlights the decline of white oak across much of the landscape and outlines the efforts of a broad coalition of organizations and agencies, including the USDA Forest Service, to address this concern.

The 63-page report, Restoring Sustainability for White Oak and Upland Oak Communities: An Assessment and Conservation Plan, discusses the forest health issue in depth and provides a multi-faceted strategy to mitigate it.

According to the publication, the White Oak Initiative “is addressing needs for awareness, research, technical and financial assistance, education, communication, policy and locally customized on-the-ground implementation.”

Sign: Oak regeneration in progress
Oak regeneration in progress. Courtesy photo White Oak Initiative.

White oak is an important ecological tree species across much of the eastern United States and can be found in 20 states. Upland oak forests in the central hardwood region, found throughout most of the Eastern Region states and several Southern Region states, provide important wildlife habitat and valuable wood products. The species is an important economic resource and is frequently used in construction and manufacturing of whiskey barrels.

Native Americans use white oak for a variety of traditional purposes. Cherokee tribe members use the inner bark in basketmaking. White oak acorns are pulverized and used as an ingredient in breadmaking and as a coffee substitute. White oak products are also used in making several Native American medicines.

Climate change, changing land use and forest management practices are negatively impacting white oak across the landscape.

Map of the US, most of the East and (minus Fl) and midwest (below the great Lakes) is highlighted green.
White oak range in the United States. Courtesy photo White Oak Initiative.

The species is expected to decline in the next 10-15 years. In response, the American Forest Foundation and the University of Kentucky are working with a coalition of more than two dozen agencies and organizations to try to stem the decline.

The Forest Service has been providing significant Landscape Scale Restoration grant funding for the project since 2018. LSR grants promote collaborative and science-based restoration of priority forest landscapes. The Forest Service uses LSR funding is to cover the costs of providing active management of private lands and to increase number of oaks on these lands.

Both Forest Service Eastern Region (Region 9) and Southern Region (Region 8) are actively involved in the initiative. Region 9 is administering two grants, 18-142 and 21-053, totaling $1,074,203. One of the Region 9 grants from 2018 funded a landowner survey.

Acting Forest Service Eastern Region Stewardship Program Manager Dennis McDougall said the initiative’s focus is on non-government and/or state lands. “The private landowner is an important part of the solution. Most of that private forestland is unmanaged. Active management can help restore white oak on the landscape,” he added.

Eleven state foresters of the Northeast-Midwest Regional State Foresters Alliance are sponsoring the LSR project protecting white oaks.

The effort is also supported by multiple state foresters throughout the oak range in the south. The Southern Region awarded companion LSR grants in both 2018 and 2021 for $690,175 and $444,945 respectively, to state forestry agencies in Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia.

Southern Region Restoration Coordinator Kyle Jones said, “It is exciting to be part of this collaborative effort involving public and private agencies, private landowners, industry, resource professionals, and policymakers in this first-time effort to address white oak sustainability across the entire range said Kyle Jones, Longleaf Pine Restoration Coordinator for the Southern Region. As we have learned from other successful initiatives, the key to cumulative long-term success will center around our ability to advance active management on private lands. LSR is doing just that.”

The primary objective of these grants is to improve important forest ecosystems. The LSR project report also noted the following goals:

  • Improve fish and wildlife habitat, including threatened or endangered species
  • Maintain or improve water quality or watershed function
  • Measure economic and ecological benefits
  • Mitigate impacts from invasive species
  • Reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfires


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