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What We Can Do About Diminishing Oak Forests

Jill is a former Master Gardener and Naturalist who enjoys cooking, abstract painting and stewardship.

Can we regrow oak forests ourselves?

Can we regrow oak forests ourselves?

Good News and Bad News

While participating in an online seminar about oak forest regeneration this past January, I learned some good news and some bad news about oak trees in the USA.

The bad news? Oak forests are on the decline.

The good news? Those of us who own forest land can help do something about it.

Why We Need Oaks

The seminar was sponsored by the Ohio State University Extension and led by Natural Resources Specialist David Apsley, who began by discussing why oak trees are so important to our nation and our ecosystem.

Pin Oak

Pin Oak

As a Nation

Because of their toughness and longevity, oaks are a symbol of strength. As such, they have been our national tree since 2004.

Oaks are also integral to our economy, their wood quality making them a sawmill staple.

Moreover, oak trees have long dominated the central hardwood forests of the eastern USA. They are also vital to the ecosystems of northern USA hardwood forests as well as the hardwood forests of Appalachia.

An acorn woodpecker looks for food on a black oak tree

An acorn woodpecker looks for food on a black oak tree

As Part of the Ecosystem

Oaks have high wildlife value. In other words, a large number of animals use oak trees for food, shelter, nesting material, and as cover from predators.

According to Apsley, acorns alone are a food source for over 90 species, from bears to songbirds. Moreover, insects and other animals feed on oak bark, oak wood, and oak leaves. These species attract additional creatures, which feed on the feeders.

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In turn, oaks depend on wildlife to distribute and plant their seeds (acorns).

Simply put, oaks are the linchpins of their ecosystems, with myriad wildlife depending upon them for survival.

Why Oak Forests Are Declining

To regenerate, oak forests must produce as many new oak trees as the total number of trees that either die or are harvested by landowners and the lumber industry. Unfortunately, that's not happening. The reasons? As the demand for oak wood continues unabated, so does the harvesting of oak trees. Meanwhile, oak forests experience fewer fires.

Fewer forest fires sound like a good thing, right? But not for oak trees, which rely on fires for their regeneration.

Forest Fires and Oak Trees

Oaks are more likely to survive a forest fire than other trees. They have thick, fire-resistant bark and leathery, fire-resistant leaves. Oak seedlings also have inordinately large root balls, so they are more likely to survive a fire. They are also among the first seedlings to appear after a fire.

What oak seedlings and saplings can't tolerate is shade, which is why natural oak forest regeneration relies upon periodic forest fires. The periodic fires destroy underbrush and under-story plants that would otherwise shade oak trees out.

Without occasional forest fires, oaks fail to regenerate due to excessive shade. And as a result, shade-loving trees with less wildlife value, such as maples, fill the forest, further shading out young oaks.

What We Can Do

To encourage oak regeneration, landowners can clear shading plants from around oak seedlings and saplings, allowing them the light they need to survive and grow.

Professional foresters do this in several ways, two of which are unsuitable for most landowners.

Foresters may use chemical herbicides to burn away underbrush. In a world already full of pollutants, this seems unconscionable to me.

They also sometimes use controlled fires to burn away shading plants, a practice too dangerous for the majority of property owners.

The third method for removing shade plants, however, is very doable for most of us: manual clearing.

Manual Clearing

Manual clearing means just that— manually cutting back the area around oak seedlings and saplings to allow more light to reach the plants.

For best results, this should be done twice, once when oaks are seedlings and again when they are saplings.

When oaks are seedlings, remove the underbrush and other mid-story plants nearby to ensure plenty of sunshine reaches the young plants.

When the seedlings develop into saplings, remove some of the surrounding forest canopies, cutting branches from nearby trees to allow more light to reach the forest floor.

If those of us with woods on our properties took the time to perform these two tasks, we could dramatically increase the oak population in our woods and slow down the decline of one of our nation’s most beneficial native trees.

The Full Forest Connect Seminar

© 2017 Jill Spencer


Jill Spencer (author) from United States on April 08, 2018:

I didn't know that, Larry! That's awesome. I would love to see the giant acorn drop! Thanks for dropping by. Best, Jill

Larry W Fish from Raleigh on April 08, 2018:

Oak trees are important and they need to be saved. I am from Pennsylvania, but now live in Raleigh, North Carolina. Raleigh is know as the City of Oaks. Yes, we do have a lot of oak trees around. As a matter of fact on New Year's Eve they drop a huge acorn in the middle of the city.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on February 28, 2017:

It would be awful if oaks went the way of the elm tree, wouldn't it? So many rely on them! Thanks for dropping by, MsD! Always good to hear from you.

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on February 24, 2017:

Thanks for your kind words, Sakina! Best, Jill

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 24, 2017:

Jill, thanks for bringing the oak situation to our awareness. The least I can do is share this information. We need the oaks, for sure!

Sakina Nasir from Kuwait on February 22, 2017:

Hi Jill! :)

This hub is great and encourages us to grow oak trees. Very well written and researched. Great job!

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on February 21, 2017:

Always happy to drive traffic to the DNR. Thanks, Roberta.

RTalloni on February 21, 2017:

Interesting hub. Information and ideas from forestry services could prove helpful to homeowners and communities:

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on February 21, 2017:

Thanks for dropping by, Larry! Good to hear from you.

Hi Blond Logic! There might be some situations where one could be prevented from felling a tree on one's property (for instance, if you've sold the wood to someone else), but in general, yes, people in the US can harvest trees on their property. We need to plant more acorns, right? And make some shade. (:

Mary Wickison from USA on February 21, 2017:

Are the people who have oaks growing allowed to fell them? I can see the need for this as I lived in England which used to be heavily forested. It was during the time of Henry VIII as I recall when many were cut for his fleet.

Although deciduous trees remain, now it seems to be mostly pine.

Maybe people who don't have oaks growing could be encouraged to do so as a way to save them.

Very informative.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on February 21, 2017:

Great ideas!

Jill Spencer (author) from United States on February 21, 2017:

Thanks for commenting, Jodah. It was a good seminar. Best, Jill

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on February 21, 2017:

This is a very informative and interesting article, Jill. It is certainly an important issue to protect the oak forests. Great images and videos too. Good job all up.

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