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Bourbon's Effort to Sustain White Oak Necessary for Future

Bbadgett via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A stave company building a mill in Marshall County is working to sustainably harvest white oak.

White oak is native to the eastern U.S. - including Kentucky - and is not threatened as a species. Bourbon barrels are commonly made of white oak because the wood is watertight and adds flavor.


Independent Stave log procurement manager Garret Nowell said the company is replanting trees on abandoned coal mine land with the American Forest Foundation. They have also partnered with the Department of Conservation to remove less desirable species for better regeneration. Nowell said most loggers do a select harvest and cut down mature white oak to create room for remaining trees to grow.


“We’ve got two and a half  more times volume than we did forty years ago so we’re actually growing it faster than we’re harvesting,” Nowell said.


University of Kentucky forestry professor Jeffrey Stringer said that while overall volume is up, scientists are beginning to see a decline in the potential regeneration of the high quality trees needed for barrel staves. Stringer said while the overall volume of white oak is up, thehigh qualityoak needed for bourbon is facing decline in regrowth potential.


Stringer said the trees are having a hard time regenerating because of competition from other species. He said white oak will not go extinct, but there could be scarcity in the future.


“In the short term we still have a lot of white oak that can be used for wildlife and timber,” Stringer said. “Over time we are concerned long-term what we’re seeing now will result in a shortage of high quality white oak in the future.”


Stringer said the cutting of higher quality white oak exceeds its growth. He said companies harvesting white oak should implement good forestry practices and management to prevent a shortage. Stringer said a select harvest is a sustainable practice but only if younger high quality oak is left to grow.


“If you pick the best ones out of a forest or a wood and there’s nothing there to replace it, then you have a problem,” Stringer said.


According to the USDA, Kentucky has an estimated 196 million white oak trees. White oak is Kentucky’s top wood export. Independent Stave Company’s Marshall County mill is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

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