Like bourbon? Restore white oak trees

Like bourbon? Restore white oak trees
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June 14th marks National Bourbon Day, and I hope Americans across the country raise a glass to this classic American tradition.

But what about the National Bourbon Days 20 to 30 years from now?

I hope this celebration continues year after year, but that may depend on Congress’ support of an unlikely issue: the restoration of white oak trees.

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You might be wondering, ‘what does white oak have to do with bourbon?’:

All bourbon must, by federal law, be aged in new, charred oak barrels. Wood from American white oak trees is the preferred and traditional material used for this process. In fact, almost all of the color and more than half of the flavor of a Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee whiskey comes from white oak.

The bourbon industry is not the only industry that relies on white oak trees. In addition, white oak goes into flooring, cabinets, furniture and more. White oak forests also provide important wildlife habitat for wild turkey, deer, grouse and many other species.

But due to the popularity of bourbon, combined with ecological challenges and more, the demand for white oak logs is outpacing the regeneration of new young white oak trees for the future. 

While there are enough white oak trees in our forests today to meet current needs, the vast majority of white oak trees are mature trees, with minimal new, young trees. Moreover, our existing forests are struggling. Insects and disease are both widespread. Climate-induced events are happening more often. And a lack of management is leaving too many small trees that are competing with young white oak seedlings.

Adding one more layer to the dynamic — white oak forests are comprised of a patchwork of different ownerships, with the majority being owned by private individuals and families. These forest owners care about their land and want to help. But caring for one parcel of land is not enough to have an impact on this tree species. 

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To ensure the future of American white oak trees, we cannot leave it to Mother Nature alone. We must work together across the entire white oak range, and ownership types. Supporting many family forest owners across the landscape in active management of their forests to improve health and encourage natural regeneration of white oak will help this ecosystem flourish into the future.

Already work has begun on this issue. The American Forest Foundation along with private landowners, the U.S. Forest Service, state agencies, conservation groups and forest industries including wine/spirits, timber flooring, and cooperage, are working on a long-term plan to ensure the future of white oak forests across its range. But this work cannot be accomplished without programs and policies in place that encourage landscape-wide conservation. 

Now it is Congress’ turn to step up and do their part, through their choices in the fiscal 2020 budget.

The U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) Landscape Scale Restoration Program, included in the 2018 Farm Bill, encourages large-scale restoration across federal, state, and private ownerships, enabling work across many parcels of land in an area with willing landowners. This program focuses on achieving measurable impact that is meaningful to all Americans. If fully funded, this program could be the launching pad to help white oak across the central United States.

Presently, the bourbon industry uses 3 million barrels a year, averaging a little under 1 and a half barrels per tree. That translates into the need for 240 million white oaks in the ground and growing right now. Because high-quality white oak trees take between 70 to 100 years to grow, if we do not act now, we’ll not just jeopardize the opportunity to enjoy a great beverage, but also the wildlife and economy that relies on this ecosystem.

By championing white oak regeneration through landscape-scale programs and policies, we can help our white oak forests flourish into the future, and continue to provide the habitat, clean water and wood for bourbon barrels they do.

Everyone can drink to that.

Tom Martin is the president and CEO of American Forest Foundation.