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Wood for bourbon barrels facing long-term decline

American white oak trees used in bourbon barrels to impart the brown liquor’s color and flavor are struggling to regenerate across the eastern U.S. including Kentucky. 

Shifting land management practices and changes in forest ecology have made it difficult for white oak seedlings and saplings to take root and grow into mature trees. Climate change and invasive insects have played a role as well. 

A new study has found that without intervention, the American white oak will begin to significantly decline in the next decade. 

Its authors, the White Oak Initiative, represent a diverse coalition of industries, conservation groups, government agencies and universities working together to preserve a keystone species, important to both biodiversity and business. 

“It’s valuable for a number of wildlife species, it’s valuable for economic use and as a big part of our forest component. “It anchors a lot of what is going on in our forests and resources we get off of it,” said Jeff Stringer, chair of Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Kentucky and co-founder of the White Oak Initiative. 

American white oak trees grow on more than 100 million acres of forest across the eastern and central U.S, according to an assessment and conservation plan the White Oak Initiative released this winter. 

Surveyors found 75% of all white oaks acres in U.S. forests should be classified as mature. About 60% had no white oak seedlings present, and about 87% had no white oak saplings present, according to the assessment. 

The assessment says that means there are extensive regions of the country where other species will grow up in the place of the white oaks that die or are harvested. 

Stringer said in some ways, it’s part of the natural evolution of the forest. White oaks thrive in areas with disturbance – think fires, grazing and logging, he said. 

Young white oaks often have trouble competing in mature oak forests. There, species like beech and maple do well growing in the shade of the canopy, he said. 

“And that goes on forever unless something happens,” he said. “What we are seeing here in the loss of our oaks and white oaks, is related to that. That natural evolution of the forest under different conditions than when they started out.”

That’s a problem for wildlife, hunters and a number of industries. White oak acorns are a source of food for deer and turkey and their trunks provide roosts for bats. The wood is important for furniture, flooring, cabinetry and a variety of wine and spirits, not the least of which is bourbon — an $8.6 billion industry in Kentucky. 

That is why several bourbon distillers have joined the White Oak initiative, including Brown Forman, which plans to purchase 50% of its logs from sustainably managed forests by 2035. 

“So for us, one of the things we are working on with this White Oak Initiative is to say, 'How do we find a way to incentivize landowners to care for their forests in a manner that allows white oaks to continue to thrive,'” said Alex Alvarez, Brown Forman chief production and sustainability officer. 

An assessment of Kentucky’s Northern Cumberland Plateau found the area still has a significant supply of white oak, but there’s room for improvement. The Kentucky Division of Forestry is working with landowners to encourage and incentivize sustainable forest management and limit poor harvesting practices. 

Stringer with University of Kentucky said whatever happens, Kentucky is always going to have white oak. Right now though, over 50% of Kentucky’s white oak stands aren’t regenerating. 

He says that’s why the White Oak Initiative is important, to plan for the future of the species. 

“The White Oak Initiative helps to ensure that policy makers know that white oak is important, that money needs to be there from the federal government… to provide farmers and woodland owners with money to help do [sustainable] practices,” Stringer said.


Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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