The mighty oak

Gilroy
– Long before it was known as Silicon Valley, or the Valley of
Heart’s Delight, Santa Clara Valley was called Llanos de los
Robles, or Plain of the Oaks.
That was the name given the valley in 1796 by the explorer Jose
Francisco Ortega. In that time, the valley was blanketed with oak
groves, but the mighty trees are falling victim to urban
encroachment, habitat destruction, age and disease.
Gilroy – Long before it was known as Silicon Valley, or the Valley of Heart’s Delight, Santa Clara Valley was called Llanos de los Robles, or Plain of the Oaks.

That was the name given the valley in 1796 by the explorer Jose Francisco Ortega. In that time, the valley was blanketed with oak groves, but the mighty trees are falling victim to urban encroachment, habitat destruction, age and disease. It’s a problem shared by the entire state. About one million acres of oak savanna and woodlands have been wiped out by residential development in California since 1945, and there is a dearth of young oaks up and down the state.

To combat this, the state in 2001 passed the Oak Woodlands Conservation Act, which set aside $10 million in grant money to protect waning oak populations. The funds are available to anyone interested in preserving oaks, but only if that person resides in a county with an official preservation plan.

Now that a group of volunteers have drafted such a plan, grant money could be available for Santa Clara County residents as soon as this summer.

“The oak woodlands are California’s signature landscape,” said Don Weden, a former Santa Clara County planner who helped draft the plan. “People think of the redwoods, but we have many more acres of oaks. We’re not trying to call attention to any crisis. I view this a cautionary document to prevent future problems.”

With 295 square miles of woodlands, Santa Clara ranks 10th out of the state’s 58 counties in land covered with oak trees, but the broad majestic oaks growing in the foothills are hiding a growing problem. There are very few young trees to take their place. Acorns and small trees are eaten by wild pigs and livestock, the soil is disturbed by other wildlife and vital water supplies are usurped by thirsty non-native plants.

“The challenge we face is that the problem is not visible,” Weden said. “But with the lack of regeneration, we may not have oaks in place for future generations. The time cycles for oak trees are so long that we have to move now so we’ll see progress in the future.”

Existing oaks are slowly dying off, victims of over-watering by well-meaning property owners, Sudden Oak Death, a fungal infection that cuts off the nutrient supply of the tree, thinning and parasites. Nancy Richardson, executive director, of the Land Trust of Santa Clara County said recently that oak trees need to be preserved to protect the entire ecosystem. Watersheds, wildlife habitats and even cattle ranches benefit from thriving oak populations, which provide food for small animals at the bottom of the food chain and shelter from the sweltering heat for cattle.

“All of the different systems rely on one another to have a healthy whole,” Richardson said.

With so much of the woodlands population on private land, the trees can not be saved by fiat. The county’s preservation plan was drafted by a large group of stakeholders representing environmental groups, open space trusts, county agencies, homeowners and the agricultural community.

“We wanted to involve the stakeholders so we wouldn’t end up with a political maelstrom,” Richardson said. “It’s incredible how fast it went. We had no budget and no staff, but we were able to produce a consensus document in four months.”

Support from farmers and cattlemen was integral to a plan that can be enacted quickly and without controversy. Mike Miller, president of the Santa Clara County Cattlemen’s Association, said that his community is wary of plans that might infringe on grazing rights.

“We worked really hard to make it something that people could live with,” Miller said. “In the past people have tried to find ways to outlaw grazing, but this worked out very well. [Cattlemen] were comfortable with it from the beginning.”

Jenny Derry, executive director of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau, said that her agency would not have supported the plan if it in anyway interfered with the county farmers.

“People do not want to have things enacted in the county that will force them to do anything on their property,” she said. “This is completely voluntary. What it will do is allow people to apply for funding for projects.”

The plan will likely be heard by the board of supervisors in May. Derry said she expects it win easy approval. By that time, the stakeholders will have formed a committee that will help draw up and approve applications. That committee will forward the most worthy projects on to the state.

“The ideal application will ask for matching funds,” Derry said. “The state is most interested in people who are interested in using their own resources to preserve woodlands.”

Of the $10 million made available by the state, $2 million is earmarked for outreach and education programs. About half of the $8 million set aside for preservation has been disbursed. A range of projects is eligible for funding, from something as simple as installing wire baskets to protect young oaks to buying and planting rows of trees. Groups like the Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy are interested in getting money to buy conservation easements to protect farm land and open space from development.

The stakeholders are also developing strategies to attract funds to the county. They will create a Web site, collect data on oak trees in the county and provide educational material to landowners. They are exploring cost-sharing options to encourage residents to undertake expensive preservation projects.

Richardson said that the projects will not interfere with growth and development in the county.

“This will not get in the way of cities’ planning,” she said. “It’s a way for us to use resources to help keep the beauty we already have.”

For more information about preserving oak woodlands, contact the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau at 776-1684 or [email protected], or e-mail Nancy Richardson at [email protected]

Native species

Ten of the 18 native oak species found in California grow in Santa Clara County:

•Black Oak

•Blue Oak

•Canyon Live Oak

•Coast Live Oak

•Interior Live Oak

•Leather Oak

•Oregon Oak

•Scrub Oak

•Shreve Oak

•Valley Oak

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