In the aftermath of oak wilt

Oak wilt is a common disease that decimates oak woodlands, but it's not the end of the forest. Perhaps, it's a set of opportunities for a whole new forest type?

So, you’ve had your land treated to control oak wilt or else the disease has swept through your forest already – lots of trees have been cut or have died. Now what do you do? Will the oak come back? Do you want oak back?

The first thing is to figure out what you want the forest to look like several decades down the road. For many, the immediate thought is reforestation; planting, if necessary. However, the newly open condition of your woodland might have some non-forest opportunities, too. Open savannahs, wooded barrens and semi-open brushlands are among some of the rarer habitats in the Lake States. They just might make some good management goals.

You might want to engage conversations with several natural resource folks, such as foresters, biologists and conservationists. Do some homework. Once you’ve identified a few desirable future conditions, look into the soil types on your property. Sandier soils will have fewer options than loamy soils; it’s a lot easier to work with nature than against nature. Performing an inventory of what’s on the land will help modify your desired future condition.

Spend some time wandering across the property looking for natural tree regeneration, especially saplings that are over five or six feet tall, maybe some oaks. This might be a good time to bone-up on your tree identification skills. Ideally, several hundred saplings per acre are needed for a fully-stocked condition that will produce a closed canopy forest at maturity.

Many regions of the Lakes States will lack this sort of natural regeneration for a variety of reasons. If you want to see a closed canopy forest in the future, you’ll need to consider planting.

If you decide to plant trees, oaks would not be out of the question. The fungus requires live tissue to survive. Once successfully treated, oak wilt disease is absent from the site. Although, future re-infection is always possible. Decades will pass before planted oaks will grow large enough for roots from different trees to graft with each other. Grafted roots allow oak wilt disease to quickly spread throughout a mature oak stand. White oak species will pose less risk than red oak species.

A mix of species is almost always the better bet these days. Increasing stand diversity and maintaining good vigor are the best ways to hedge against future pests, effects of climate change and disturbance events. Of course, planted trees, especially hardwoods, will need protection from deer in most areas. Red oaks, when planted in a mix of species, should be kept at least 75 feet apart from each other. This distance is far enough to allow oaks to reach sawtimber size with a minimal chance of root grafts forming.

If you decide to tackle a planting operation, be certain to plan accordingly. Considerable quantities of effort are required both before and after the actual planting in order to obtain good tree survival rates. Effective site preparation and competition control are essential.

Watch for encroachment by invasive shrubs, especially buckthorns, Autumn olive and honeysuckles. These species are particularly adept at overtaking areas opened up to sunlight. Managing for one of the lightly forested habitats may be a constant battle to keep these shrubs under control. They can also out-compete planted trees.

So, what should you do? Given the natural constraints of your property, that depends much upon your wishes and how much time and money you’re willing to invest. Owning land and managing natural resources can be a lifetime’s worth of effort and gratification.

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