Restoration release of overtopped Oregon white oak increases 10-year growth and acorn production

In the Willamette Valley–Puget Trough–Georgia Basin ecoregion of the North American Pacific Northwest, there has been widespread encroachment of Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) upon Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) savanna and woodland stands that were historically maintained by frequent anthropogenic fire. Restoration of these stands requires removal of the Douglas-fir overstory, although there is little information on how oak trees that have been suppressed for decades respond to release. Our objective was to evaluate the 10-year response of oak trees to three release treatments from overtopping Douglas-fir in a study replicated at four western Washington sites. Treatments were: full release (removal of all Douglas-fir within a radius equal to the oak’s height), half release (removal of Douglasfir within a half-height radius), and thin only (stand-level commercial thinning of the Douglas-fir overstory; oaks not targeted for release). Periodic diameter growth of oak trees in the full-release treatment was significantly greater (by as much as 243%) than that in the other treatments and increased with time since treatment. Oak height and crown area growth rates were not influenced by treatment, but larger pre-treatment crown size was associated with greater post-treatment diameter growth and acorn production. Full release increased acorn production compared to thin only in years when region-wide production was moderate to high (5 of 9 years); half release increased production relative to thin only in 2 of 9 years, but to a lesser degree. Height growth of residual Douglas-fir trees was greater than that of oak trees in all treatments. The increasing post-treatment growth rate of the fully released oak trees and their increased acorn production indicate the capacity of long-suppressed Oregon white oak to rapidly recover following complete removal of a conifer overstory. The oak trees showed no negative effects following the dramatic change in environment associated with this treatment. Thus, a single-entry, complete release from overtopping conifers was effective in restoring overstory structure and composition, which is an initial step in restoration of invaded oak woodland or savanna.