Promoting Forest Health in Kentucky

Update from annual partner meeting

Most bourbon whiskey is made in Kentucky, and federal law requires all bourbon to be aged in white oak barrels. USDA Forest Service researchers and partners are teaming up to advance the sustainability and restoration of white oak resources across the South.

Attendees included partners from the Daniel Boone National Forest, Kentucky Woodland Owners Association, and The Nature Conservancy. Photo by Jennifer Moore Myers, USFS.

This research, along with forest health research on the American chestnut and other important tree species, is happening at the Forest Health Research and Education Center (FHC), a collaborative science and education hub at the University of Kentucky (UK) in Lexington.

Dana Nelson, SRS research geneticist, co-directs FHC with Jeff Stringer, chair of UK Department of Forestry and Natural Resources.

The three FHC teams – Biological Sciences, Social Sciences, and Education & Outreach – recently met with partners and stakeholders to share an annual update (pdf) on their work.

First up was the Biological Sciences team. “The team continues to develop genome resources for the American chestnut, with an emphasis on blight resistance. We’re also working on a few other target species — hemlock, red bay, ashes, white oak, and the highly endangered Torreya conifer. What are the candidate genes in those trees? We are developing markers for these genes and testing them in breeding and transgenic trials. Our hope is to buy some time for their conservation and restoration,” says Nelson.

The team includes research pathologist Tyler Dreaden, whose recent work has focused on developing genetic markers for nonnative pathogens such as laurel wilt (Raffaelea lauricola) and Phytophthora cinnamomi, a root rot that affects American chestnut as well as multiple oak species.

Lynne Rieske-Kinney, an FHC partner in the UK Department of Entomology, is testing a gene silencing technique called RNAi to suppress forest insect pests. This year her lab identified effective genes for killing emerald ash borer and southern pine beetle. The project is now evaluating how to most effectively deliver the treatment and minimize effects on non-target insects.

Increased demand for small-batch bourbon has more than doubled the price of white oak barrel stave logs since 2011. Photo by Katja Schulz, via Flickr.

Through the White Oak Initiative, a partnership of multiple states and organizations, FHC has hired geneticist Laura DeWald to assist with sequencing the white oak (Quercus alba) genome as part of a larger genetics and tree improvement program.

“This next phase of the Forest Health Center will focus on finding pathways to implement our research, to deliver these methods to the field,” says Nelson.

The Social Sciences team, led by Thomas Ochuodho, added new research collaborators along with an Advisory Board. Their focus is understanding the social and economic impacts of forest health risks and corresponding management responses. The team has several projects underway to gauge the impacts of initiatives or policies on forest health practices.

One effort nearing completion is a stakeholder survey about the supply and potential threats to white oak across the eastern U.S. This fall the team will start a modeling study to understand the economic impacts of increased demand for white oak in the bourbon industry. Stave log prices have more than doubled since 2011, and sustainable growth and regeneration are vital to the industry and supporting forest ecosystems.

The team’s research also examines issues across the Central Appalachian region – Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia – and includes topics such as sudden oak death and invasive species like kudzu. One of their goals is to inform outreach efforts to increase the engagement of more passive landowners.

The Education & Outreach team added a new UK faculty position, filled by Ellen Crocker, to lead its stakeholder engagement projects.

“Our goal is to connect research results with practitioners. Our approach is to develop extension programming focused on forest health; increase communication with landowners about forest health; and, over the longer term, build networks for participatory research in tree breeding,” says Crocker.

TreeSnap captures photos and attributes of healthy, resilient trees that scientists may include in breeding or improvement research. Photo by Carol Spence, University of Kentucky.

In 2018, the team has designed and implemented forest health outreach programs via UK Cooperative Extension. Their accomplishments include undergraduate courses, workshops, and talks; articles for Kentucky Woodlands magazine; and a number of technology transfer activities.

One example is the TreeSnap app, a citizen science effort to document trees resilient to invasive pests and pathogens. The app has identified healthy trees that may be used by FHC scientists or others in breeding programs.

The team recently received funding to develop another tool: a mobile app called HealthyWoods. “We’re designing the tool for landowners without a forestry background. They can look at photos of healthy forests and compare them with their woodlands. We hope it will increase awareness about some different aspects of forest health: What is regeneration, and why is it important? What does it mean to have a closed canopy or crown dieback? The app will give landowners some questions to think about, along with forestry contacts to help them address those questions,” adds Crocker.

Learn more about the Forest Health Center.

For more information, email Dana Nelson at

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