The Winters family enjoys spending time together in the woods on their Washington County property.

A family’s forest: Managing for white oak

By Brooke DeCubellis, Ohio Natural Resources Conservation Service

The white oak tree, found primarily in southeastern Ohio, is a versatile tree species sought after by humans and wildlife alike. Barrels made from its wood lends hints of caramel and vanilla to bourbon’s signature flavor. The tree’s durability and water-resistance is prized by both the lumber and furniture industries. Ohio wildlife flock to the nutrient-dense acorns that drop from its mighty branches, which also host a multitude of insects and birds. 

But the mighty oak is in trouble. Though mature trees still dominate southeastern Ohio woods, young white oak trees and saplings are not growing in the understory to replace the older generations, threatening the future of the tree species. 

“There are a lot of tree species that grow faster than white oaks,” said Cameron Bushong, Ohio Division of Forestry state service forester. “These trees will quickly overtop white oaks, blocking saplings from sunlight and competing for valuable nutrients.” 

Researchers and conservation experts have found that active forest management is key in ensuring white oak’s survival. Private forest owners like Alex Winters in Washington County are taking action, implementing some of the same conservation practices that state and federal foresters are using to manage public lands.

“My parents owned one acre of land that adjoined Veto Lake State Wildlife Area that I would play in as a boy and I had a high standard set at a young age of what a mature hardwood forest should look like,” Winters said. “But as I got older, I realized that the majority of woods in southeast Ohio do not look like the state property that I grew up around.”

Winters reached out to both the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Ohio Division of Forestry to see how he could improve the woodland that he had purchased. 

“This specific area had been clear-cut about 30 years ago before I purchased it. It was so overgrown with brush and invasive species, I actually got lost in here while I was hunting!” Winters said. 

He was able to work with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service District Conservationist David Bauerbach and take advantage of financial assistance to improve his woodland through both the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program

“Alex has worked with us over the years to put a lot of conservation practices and enhancements on the land. He used our financial programs, which are designed to incentivize and offset the cost of bringing conservation practices and management into the operation,” Bauerbach said. 

Winters also worked with The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry Service Foresters for advice on how to transform his forest. 

“We do free, on-site consultations with landowners, assess the current state of the woods, and what can be done to improve it,” Bushong said. “We work with landowners who have a diverse set of goals and can come up with plans tailored to their specific goals — whether they’re planning to harvest and sell timber or enjoy the forest for hiking and hunting opportunities.” 

Together, Winters and Bushong came up with a forest management plan. 

“It helped me understand what direction I could go with our woods, what was practical and what kind of forest I could potentially end up with 10, 20, 30 years down the road,” Winters said. “Additionally, the forest management qualified me to take advantage of property tax reduction programs, which has been a huge help.” 

Property tax reduction programs available to Ohio woodland owners include:

• Current Agricultural Use Value Program (CAUV): Available through county auditor offices, Ohio woodland owners can receive a property tax reduction on qualifying agricultural lands (including timberlands) based on the current use value rather than the “highest and best” potential use of acres. Requirements are determined by the county auditor’s office and may vary across the state. 

• Ohio Forest Tax Law (OFTL): Available through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Ohio woodland owners can receive up to a 50% reduction of property taxes on qualifying forested acreage. In exchange for the tax reduction, landowners agree to manage their forest land for the commercial production of timber and other forest products and to abide by pertinent rules and regulations. 

With financial and technical assistance through NRCS and ODNR, Winters was able to target his management goals, which included increasing white oak regeneration and building wildlife habitat for hunting and recreation. 

“Since we started implementing some of the practices in our forest management plan — we’re going on 10 or 11 years now — you can definitely see the benefits,” he said. “After we had children, investing in our woods seemed like a good idea — it’s something that we can pass on to them eventually and enjoy together now as a family to come hike, have a place to hunt, ride four wheelers, to camp.”

One of the conservation practices that NRCS provided funding for to Winters put in place was crop tree release, a practice that singles out desired trees or “crop trees,” such as white oak, and prevents resource competition by reducing or eliminating some of the less desirable species surrounding the crop tree. This thinning method improves the health, vigor, and growth rate of the selected crop trees. 

Winters chose to focus on white oaks, and in some instances, girdled the competing species, another conservation enhancement that NRCS provides funding for. Tree girdling removes the bark and cambium from around the entire circumference of the tree trunk. 

“Girdling kills the tree standing and turns it into a snag, which has a lot of benefits for wildlife,” Bushong said. “The hollow cavities in the tree can provide birds and mammals with shelter, foraging opportunities and more.” 

Winters is happy with the results, which are not only improving the overall stand health for potential timber harvests down the road but offering immediate wildlife habitat benefits. 

“I’ve seen more wildlife in the area, particularly deer and turkey that are attracted to the white oak acorns,” he said. “I love hunting in our woods with my boys, like my father did with me. I value those times with them, making memories that I hope they will always carry with them.” 

Winters also hopes to pass on his love of nature and, eventually, the woods that he owns to his children.

“The NRCS, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, and Ohio foresters have really educated me. And the financial incentives from NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Conservation Stewardship Program have helped me complete some of these management practices faster than I would have been able to on my own,” he said. “These resources really allow you to build your own family legacy.”

Proper forestry management is an essential part of establishing and maintain healthy woodlands. By implementing a few conservation practices, woodland owners can help ensure the survival of the white oak for the future and gain many other benefits. Be sure to check out the free resources that Ohio woodland owners can take advantage of. 

“Seek out advice from multiple natural resource professionals, whether it’s a forester, wildlife biologist, or the district conservationist,” Bushong said. “Use all of that advice to your advantage. We’re all here trying to help you manage the land for your specific goals.”

Those interested in learning about resources available to Ohio forest owners for managing woodland health or about managing for white oaks specifically, reach out to a local Ohio USDA service center or ODNR’s Division of Forestry for more information. For more about the work on the Winters property visit: https://youtu.be/jRtmpyCxC2I

Girdling trees has allowed for more white oak growth on the property.

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