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Goal: Sustain Our Nation’s Forests and Grasslands White oak reproduction under fire: Thinning and prescribed fire benefit species in demand

White oak sprouts after three prescribed fires on the William B. Bankhead National Forest, Alabama. Note the dead stem, the many new sprout stems, and the charred log on the ground in the lower right corner. (Forest Service photo by Callie Schweitzer)


White oak commodity production has seen an uptick due to increased demand for spirits, which includes alcohol distilled in white oak barrels. Across the central U.S., upland hardwood forests are aging, and canopy-dominant white oak trees have the functionality (size and ring structure) and chemistry (tannins for color and taste) desired by barrel cooperage. But to maintain white oak primacy, which supports ecosystems as well as industry, managers must ensure that white oak saplings survive and grow into the canopy.


SRS researchers and partners studied white oak (Quercus alba) seedlings and saplings in mixed oak-pine stands on the William B. Bankhead National Forest in northcentral Alabama. Stands were subjected to three thinning levels (heavy, light, and a no thin control) and three fire frequencies (dormant season burns of none, one, or three fires) in a factorial design.

Regardless of thinning treatment, three prescribed burns increased the density of white oak seedlings. Thinning with one fire resulted in the highest densities of white oak saplings. Thinned and burned stands had larger white oak seedling sprouts than those thinned with no burns. Size matters, as red maple seedlings and saplings were the main competitor in all treatments. Larger white oak sprouts and saplings are better positioned to compete with red maple, but additional tending treatments that target red maple demise are suggested to facilitate white oak recruitment into dominant canopy positions. Risks to residual tree value due to fire damage may be offset by gains in oak regeneration success.

A related study by John Willis and University of Mississippi researchers supports this result. Maple and other shade-tolerant species have characteristics such as leaf litter and thick canopies that could reduce the effectiveness of prescribed fire as a management tool.

White oak is an incredibly important species, anchoring ecosystems and economies. SRS research on oak regeneration aims to provide managers with tools to maintain this vital component of U.S. forests. This work provides an excellent example of co-producing science with National Forest partners, and this research will continue, with partners from Alabama A&M University, Tennessee State University, University of Alabama and Mississippi State University.

Principal Investigator
Callie Schweitzer, Research Forester
4157 - Upland Hardwood Ecology and Management
Strategic Program Areas
Resource Management and Use
Wildland Fire and Fuels
White oak (Quercus alba) response to thinning and prescribed fire in northcentral Alabama mixed pine hardwood forests
CompassLive Article
The Quest to Sustain White Oak Under Fire
Research Partners
Andy Scott - Bankhead National Forest, Region 8
Allison Cochran - Bankhead National Forest, Region 8
Kerry Clark - Bankhead National Forest, Region 8
Dan Dey - NRS
External Partner
Yong Wang - Alabama A&M University