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Why Are Our Oaks Dying?

No doubt you have read in the news recently about oak trees dying in the Ozarks. It's true-thousands of acres of oaks, mainly scarlet, black and red oak, are dying across the Ozarks from a complex phenomenon called oak decline. The problem is currently much worse in northern Arkansas, but we think Missouri may be just a couple of years behind our neighbors to the south.

To understand the problem, you have to look back more than 100 years. The Ozark forests originally were a mix of pine, white oak, red oak and hickory. They were cut over in the early 1900s and then grazed and burned for years. The forests that came back were different, dominated by red oaks rather than a healthier mixture of species.

What we call "oak decline" is the result of several factors, including old age, drought, insects and diseases. Red oaks typically have shorter life spans than white oaks or pines. Trees that regenerated early in the 20th century are now reaching maturity. This, combined with the fact that they are growing on thin, rocky soils and in an area that regularly experiences drought, makes them susceptible to several health problems. These problems include infestations by red oak borers, two-lined chestnut borers, leaf-eating insects and Armillaria root rot.

Some ask if oak decline isn't a part of a natural process and shouldn't we just let nature take its course. The answer is a qualified "yes." Pests and droughts occur in natural cycles, but the root of this problem is man-made. Years of under-management-or no management-created acres of trees prone to oak decline.

These dying trees will have far-reaching effects. They will mar the scenic beauty of the Ozarks. Although some wildlife species will benefit from an increase in cavity nesting sites in the dead trees, we will see a decline in the amount of red oak acorns that are the staple of many forest animals' diets.

The forest products industry is already feeling the effects of oak decline. Some of the salvaged trees are so riddled with borer tunnels that the lumber is unusable. The safety of forest workers and visitors is another big concern. Dodging limbs falling from dead trees while you are hunting or hiking is not a relaxing way to spend a weekend.

What can you do? If you are a landowner, seek the advice of a professional forester about how to properly manage your woods. Some enterprising (and unscrupulous) loggers are persuading landowners to sell their timber with the opinion that it's going to die of oak decline anyway. In some cases trees may need to be harvested. In other cases, they may only need to be thinned to improve their vigor. If your trees do need to be harvested, a forester can help you do it correctly so you have a healthier mix of species in the next generation of trees.

If you don't own forest land, ask questions, learn all you can about forest ecology and management, and be patient. Understand that this situation didn't occur overnight, and it will take years of management work, including harvesting, to correct it. Missouri foresters are now being forced to play the bad hand they were dealt nearly a century ago.

Will red oaks go the way of the American elm? Probably not. But the problem is serious and warrants the attention and cooperation of citizens and forest owners alike.

Bob Krepps, Forestry Division Administrator

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