The history of America can be seen in our trees. From buildings and ship masts to food and water, our forests have sustained and shaped our diverse country over centuries. But this natural heritage is unmistakably at risk, with signature American trees like white oak facing an uncertain future without action. It is time to issue a Declaration of Restoration for America’s native forests.
If you doubt the importance of forests to the success of our country, let’s start with ship masts. The colonists discovered dramatic white pine forests throughout the Atlantic Seaboard, giant trees that were like redwoods in their majesty and domination of the landscape. It was said that a squirrel could traverse the region jumping across the tops of these mighty trees.
We have never seen such white pines in modern times, in part because these giants were harvested for ship masts. In fact, England marked the best white pines with the King’s arrow to signify ownership of this precious resource. This was one tension that helped spark the American Revolution, and our rise as a world power on the oceans was aided by fully controlling this natural resource.
The oak has also had a huge influence on America’s development. Thanks to its tight grain and iron-like qualities, oak has long been a critical building material for everything from ships and buildings to a personal favorite for me—whiskey and bourbon barrels. Beyond wood products, recent research has revealed the surprising role oaks played as an early food source through consumption of acorns, a practice known as “Balanophagy.” Some have even suggested renewing this practice!
Many other native forests have shaped America, including the longleaf pine of the Southeast, bottomland hardwood of the Lower Mississippi, ponderosa and whitebark pine of the Intermountain West, and sequoia, Douglas fir, and redwood forests of the Pacific Coast. It is hard to think of these regions without seeing their forests as defining of local identity, way of life, and economy.
This would be simply a feel-good story if it ended there. But America’s native forests face a host of challenges, some new and some as old as time. Climate change is altering the conditions favorable to tree species as currently distributed across our landscapes. If we want to maintain our native forests, we need to understand these changes and use forest management and restoration to facilitate an orderly transition—like this U.S. Forest Service effort.
Traditional forest stresses like pests, forest disease, fire, and drought are also escalating. Climate change is one reason these stresses are accelerating, but hardly alone. Our rapidly shrinking world through globalization has sped transmission of forest pests and diseases like the Emerald Ash Borer that originated in Asia. We need to aggressively control these forest invaders, and in some cases cultivate heartier stock to facilitate survival of species like the American chestnut and whitebark pine.
We also need more capacity to manage and restore forests. Many of America’s native forests have been cleared for agriculture or remain impaired by past management, such as over-harvest, mining, and unwise fire suppression. Other forests simply need more regular harvest and management like prescribed fire to maintain treasured tree species.
The solution is to invest in restoration and careful stewardship of our native forests. This recovery process can include substantial changes—like thinning overgrown forests, ripping up compacted mining soils, and converting commercial plantation forests back to native trees.
A great example of this “patriotic forestry” is the movement to restore white oak and other oaks across the Central Hardwoods region of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. These heartland forests collectively provide the key source of white oak production in America. But that production is at risk as white oak regeneration slows.
Threats to white oak are both natural and human-caused. The natural challenge is gradual transition of forest types in the maturing forests of this region that over time will favor other species. If we want to maintain white oak, we need to actively manage some forest areas to help “release” oaks from among competitors.
But we have also lost potential white oak production from our own actions, including mining that has cleared oak and other hardwoods, leaving impaired, compacted soils behind that do not easily regenerate healthy forests.
To help secure the future of white oak, my organization, American Forests, has been partnering with Independent Stave Company, the U.S. Forest Service, and state agencies to restore white oaks on national forests and state-owned lands. This includes “rip and replant” techniques to restore white oak on compacted former mining lands and other favorable actions for oak regeneration like “coppicing” old and nearly dead oaks to spur seedlings and seed production.
Why should you care about this kind of patriotic forestry?
First off, if you share my enjoyment of occasionally “drinking our forests” in the form of spirits and wines that are fermented in oak barrels, then you care about white oak—the primary wood used in such barrels.
But there is much more at stake than your favorite adult beverage. Important “Made in America” businesses like Independent Stave Company, the world’s leading manufacturer of such barrels, are major employers in these states. These barrels also help maintain jobs in other iconic industries like distilling that define the economy and culture of the heartland. Forests are an essential rural economic development tool.
It was Theodore Roosevelt who said, “A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless…When you help to preserve our forests or to plant new ones, you are acting the part of good citizens.”
There is a new patriotic forest movement in American today that is ready to go to work restoring our native forests. The question is whether we are willing as a nation to invest in this kind of “green infrastructure” as part of our push to strengthen our nation. This Fourth of July, let’s issue a new Declaration of Restoration for forests to secure our future and honor our past.