End of Oaks

dead white oak

Dead white oak.

They stand as edifices on the ridge-lines.  They seem as permanent as the stony ground on which they grow, but they are not eternal. Sooner or later, boring of insects and the general rot of wood bring them into death. Then, the winds of summer storms and winter gales bring them to the ground, and their matter returns to the soil from whence they came.

The oak tree played a major role in the identity of two of my ancestral people. The German people see the oak as a national symbol, and the English had a similar position for them. It was from the oak trees that the Royal Navy’s ships were made.

The forests I know best in West Virginia are called “Appalachian Mesophytic Forests.”

“Mesophytic” means not particularly wet or dry.  The oak and the hickory are the dominant trees, which has led to their other name, “oak-hickory forest.”

But the oak predominates.  In a typical West Virginia forest, around 60 percent of the trees will be oak, and unlike Western Europe, where just a few species of oak exist, our forests will be filled a great diversity of the trees. The most common species are divided into “red oak species” and “white oak” species. but there are many other types of oak that fall under neither distinction.

One of the weird delusions one must fight against in these forests is assuming they are old, that they are the same forest primeval that existed when Europeans first arrive. However, most of these forests are regenerated from old farm pastures that were left fallow after the agrarian economy fell apart in the latter decades of the twentieth century.

Those old forests certainly had many oaks, but they also shared their growing space with massive American chestnut trees.  The deer supposedly preferred the chestnuts to acorns, and even now, one can buy chestnut feeds to bait deer.

But those deer munching prepackaged chestnuts will never have the privilege of foraging beneath those old chestnut trees. In the early 1900s, a chestnut blight came sweeping through the Northeast and the Appalachians. The indigenous American chestnuts died off. And now only the deer’s ancestral proclivity manifests itself when the bait is put out.

I knew people who were alive when the last of the chestnuts died. I knew a few old farmers who missed the trees so much that they planted the Chinese chestnut as a replacement tree.  My grandpa Westfall had a massive Chinese chestnut as the “shade tree” for his deck, and I can still see him sitting on his the deck, peeling away chestnuts with his knife that he had just collected from his favorite tree.

A big storm came one summer, and the howling winds twisted that tree down to the ground. I thought it would be there forever, but the wind had other ideas.

It was a lesson in the simple reality that trees are not permanent. They are living, and they die.

This year, a firestorm went off in West Virginia.  The governor wanted to open up some of the state parks to logging. The reason for this move was never fully mentioned, but the truth is the Chinese market wants good quality oak lumber, especially from red oaks. The Chinese are buying the logs straight out and processing them over there, and the state wanted to make a few dollars selling big oak logs.

The plan has since been abandoned.

Now, it is certainly true that oak trees do grow back, but what is not mentioned much of the discussion about oak forests in West Virginia is that oaks are also under threat.

Just as the chestnut blight brought down our native chestnut tree, the oaks are under pressure now and have been for decades. Yes, the forests are still dominated by oak trees, and acorn mast still drives the ecosystem.

But now, it is quite difficult for oaks to reproduce. Squirrels still take acorns and bury them away from their parent tree, which makes for better growing conditions for the seedlings.

But when the seedlings arise from the leaf litter, the chomping maws of white-tails rip them from their shallow little roots.

Deer have always eaten little oak seedlings. The two species have evolved together, and during the autumn, the deer rely heavily upon acorns to build up their fat reserves.

However, we now live in a time in which deer densities are high. Sportsmen expect deer to be a high densities, and during the 80s and 90s, the numbers were even higher than they are now.

The state DNR, realizing that high deer numbers were ultimately bad for forests, for agricultural interests, and for auto insurers, decided to allow hunters to take more does from the population.  The deer numbers went down a bit.

This deer number reduction coincided with a coyote population increase, and it was assumed that the coyotes were the reason why the deer numbers dropped.  Some conspiracy theorists believed that the DNR or the insurance companies turned out coyotes to reduce the deer population. The story goes that some trapper bagged a coyote in his fox trap, and on its ear was a tattoo that said “Property of State Farm.”

Of course, the coyotes do take fawns, and some coyotes do pack up and hunt them. But there is very little evidence that coyotes have an effect on deer populations, at least in this part of the country.

Coyotes aren’t like wolves in that they don’t need to kill lots of deer to survive. They can live very nicely on rabbits and mice. Those smaller species have the added advantage that they don’t fight back with sharp hooves when the predator must make a kill.

So we have sportsmen demanding higher deer numbers and lower coyote numbers, and we have oak trees that are having harder and harder time regenerating, simply because there are too many deer eating their seedlings.

And now, fewer and fewer hunters are taking to the woods to hunt deer. State parks, of course, are off-limits to deer hunters.

So if these big oaks are taken for the Chinese market, it really could mean the end of oak trees in the state parks.

And statewide, they could become a rarity entirely.

Of course, the deer themselves will starve without acorns feeding them every September, October, and November, and maybe that crash will allow some regeneration to occur.

But it might be too late.

The truth of the matter is deer hunting is about forestry, and if more and more people see deer hunting as a cruel “sport,” then we’re going to see drastic changes to our forest ecosystem.

Our only hope is that black bears become more carnivorous and eat as many fawns as they can find, and the coyotes learn to swarm the hills like Kipling’s red dogs.

Or maybe more human hunters will take to the forests and fields in search of high quality meat.

But none of these events is likely to happen.

And in a few decades, we may very well see the end of the oak-hickory forest as we know it.

I guess it is time we thought long and hard again about selling out our natural resources to out of state concerns.  The curse of West Virginia is that we never really have, and those who dared raise the issue were either driven from office or kept as far from centers of power as possible.

Maybe times are changing.

Let’s hope they change fast enough for our forests and wildlife.

 

 

 

 

Natural History

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