Valuable White Oak is vulnerable to future shortages in supply

Younger trees of this species are needed for a variety of future uses, such as bourbon barrels

MADISON, Wis. -- As you relax over the beverage of your choice this evening, a highly valued tree species may contribute in several ways. That species may have stored that beverage, you may be seated on a stool constructed from it, and the stool may rest on flooring of the same wood: white oak.

The wood species’ use in storing bourbon is required by federal law, and white oak barrels can also be prevalent in storing some wines and beers.

However, the American Forest Foundation (AFF) and its partners in the "White Oak Initiative" believe that work is required to ensure there is an adequate supply of the species for coming decades. They believe there is adequate supply for uses now, but worry that greater regeneration is required to maintain the needed volume of white oak in the future. And for a species that requires a 50-80 year growth period, they feel the need to plan is there now.

Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota represent the Northwest corner of the white oak forest in the United States. For Wisconsin, the species is particularly important in the Western and Central part of the state, including regions tracked by pricing reports by Forest Data Network: the Chippewa, Mississippi River, Black River and Driftless Northern regions.

One consumer of white oak would love to see more available -- Staggemeyer Stave Company of Caledonia, Minnesota. The company buys oak within a range of 175 miles of its plant, according to Jed Hammell, the company’s owner and president.

Staggemeyer’s oak ends up with 100 customers around the country, including wineries in California and bourbon distilleries in Kentucky. It first passes through cooperages in Kentucky that convert Staggemeyer’s staves into barrels.

Kentucky bourbon whiskey barrels

Northern white oak’s slow growth provides a quality advantage--- it leads to tight-grained wood which is preferable in barrels.

Staggemeyer’s business employed about 26 people at the time of this story, but that level changes seasonally. Hammell said that the oak supply is a limiting factor.

"I’d like to expand if I could get more oak," Hammell said.

The barrels have a useful life of many decades. Some that start as bourbon barrels may end up being shipped to Scotland for further use in scotch whiskey or to craft breweries in the U.S. for specialty brews, Hammell said.

While the current white oak supply is adequate, “what is missing are the younger trees,” according to Paul DeLong of the American Forest Foundation. The initiative is a cooperative effort of the U.S. Forest Service, several state forestry departments and businesses that rely on a supply of white oak for their products.

Jordy Jordahl, of the AFF, explained in a presentation that 72 percent of white oak forest stands nationally are 50 to 120 years old. Improving regeneration is necessary to make certain that there is a long term supply for flooring, furniture and barrels, he said.

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