LEXINGTON, Ky. — Inside the Blue Grass Army Depot, volunteers are helping restore woodlands. The base, located just south of Lexington, is home to a new plot of white oak trees critical to Kentucky’s ecosystem and economy.
The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment launched the White Oak Genetics and Tree Improvement Project to ensure the state’s sustainable growth and production of white oak.
The project supports the efforts of the White Oak Initiative, a national push by white oak-dependent or interested industries, trade associations, conservation organizations, agencies, universities and nonprofits to protect superior white oak seedlings available for reforestation. The efforts facilitate the White Oak Initiative’s ability to respond to increasing white oak resource pressures.
White oak is vital to forest health and functions, such as providing wildlife habitat, and has a high economic impact on the state’s forest products industry. However, white oak seedlings are failing to grow into larger trees, which threatens the sustainable presence of this species.
“White oaks are important to the state,” said Laura DeWald, agriculture specialist for the UK Department of Forestry and Natural Resources. “Unfortunately, smaller ones cannot compete wi other species in the woodlands and as large white oak trees are removed from the forest through harvesting or dying from old age, they are not being replaced by younger white oak. That’s unsustainable and unacceptable.”
DeWald said white oaks are a keystone species. “In a bridge, you have the keystone. If you pull it out, the whole bridge collapses,” she said. “That’s what we are looking at here. Aside from their most famous use as bourbon barrels, both mammals and insects use white oaks, and if the white oaks disappear, you might see some of those animals disappear, too.”
White oak trees are one of North America’s most essential hardwood species. Their wood is strong, durable and resistant to decay, making it valuable for construction, furniture, flooring and barrel-making for aging bourbon. The acorns produced by white oak trees are an important food source for a variety of the commonwealth’s wildlife. Additionally, the trees provide carbon sequestration and water regulation, preventing erosion and maintaining soil health.
The White Oak Genetics and Tree Improvement Project has three phases. In phase one, citizen volunteers–including those in the UK Master Naturalist program, state and federal agencies and non-profit organizations–collect white oak acorns from around Kentucky and neighboring states. UK Department of Forestry and Natural Resources and Kentucky Division of Forestry staff will plant the acorns and seedlings at the KDF’s nursery.
In phase two, researchers will plant the resulting one-year-old seedlings in progeny test sites, such as the Blue Grass Army Depot, to evaluate the parent tree’s ability to pass along quality traits.
Phase three consists of cloning the parents that produced superior progeny and creating grafted seed orchards in the nurseries to supply acorns that will produce superior seedlings for the nursery to sell for reforestation. These superior seedlings will support ecological success in the forest and increase the economic value of wood products.