Placer County’s Oak Woodlands Are a Cultural and Ecological Treasure
By Richard Harris
In his book "Totem Salmon" Freeman House, co-founder of the Mattole Restoration Council describes the cultural and ecological significance of the Pacific salmon, once so abundant in the streams of California. He traces the values that society places on the salmon back to the native Californians who conducted ceremonies and enforced community rules aimed at conserving the fisheries. Native Californians similarly attributed high value to oak trees. Both salmon and oaks were important sources of food to the Indians. Consequently, favored fishing spots and oak trees that produced large acorn crops were protected.
|Native Californian practices such as use of fire to stimulate oak regeneration, reduce competition with oaks from brush and enhance acorn gathering and hunting, affected oak ecosystems, not just individual trees. Although the extent to which these practices had effects at the landscape scale is a subject of debate, there is no doubt that locally, in the vicinity of permanent settlements oak landscapes on the order of hundreds of acres were managed by the native Californians for food production and cultural purposes.
In our present-day California, oak trees and oak communities have also achieved some degree of cultural importance, not primarily for the products they provide to people but for other reasons. Individual oak trees are valued for their beauty. Vegetation types dominated by oaks are considered critical wildlife habitat. Oak woodland protects water quality in many watersheds that are sources of municipal water supplies.
As with the salmon, over the past few decades there has been increasing awareness of the values provided by oak trees and oak woodland among a proportion of California’s population. Curricula and school projects have been created to educate young Californians about these resources. Being among the informed, we may consider this to be a general phenomenon. In reality, it is doubtful that many Californians truly understand why it might be important to "save the salmon" or conserve oak woodland.
|Placer Legacy identifies conservation of Placer County oak woodland as high priority. Recent land acquisitions in which Legacy has been a partner such as Taylor Ranch and Spears Ranch are primarily oak woodland. Residents of the county may question why public and private funds are being used to acquire oak woodland, which would appear to be so common. The rationale for acquiring or otherwise protecting oak woodland is complex but to ensure continued public support, it must be understood.
There are over twenty-three thousand acres of oak woodland in Placer County. It is not all the same however, and different areas are dominated by different species of oak. Most of us are familiar with the elegant, large oaks in the valley and lower foothills. Areas with this type of oak woodland are relatively rare in the county. From the perspective of conservation, protecting the remaining areas of large "valley" oaks is the highest priority because of their rarity. Replacement of such areas is simply not possible, at least within a human lifetime.
Most of the county has oak woodland that is denser, in many cases comprised of smaller trees that regenerated after fire or agricultural clearing. This kind of woodland may occupy hundreds or even thousands of acres. They are not rare, but their conservation is important for other reasons. Large, intact areas of oak woodland provide habitat for the common and uncommon wildlife that live in the county. For wildlife to persist, they require the physical habitat and food found in the oak woodland.
|There are two general threats to the expanses of oak woodland found in the county. First, there is the threat that they will be developed. Second, there is the threat of wild fire. Either event can result in the total loss of woodland. In the case of development however, there are effects short of total loss that can result in significant impacts on wildlife habitat. These include the effects of human occupation within oak woodland that create changes in vegetation, introduce exotic plants and animals (pets) and generally make the woodland less hospitable for wildlife. There are also effects at the landscape scale, termed "fragmentation" in which a large area of woodland is broken up into smaller areas. These smaller areas and the boundaries between them (typically roads, utility corridors and fence lines) may not be suitable for wildlife that require large territories to meet their life needs.
Conservation objectives for the extensive areas of oak woodland generally focus on maintaining large, contiguous areas free from development. There is also an emphasis on management to reduce fire hazard in preserved areas. There are few areas in the county that still retain large woodland and consequently, that is where conservation initiatives will be proposed.
|Native Californians had rules for conserving resources such as salmon and oak woodland. These rules were often embedded within their religious belief systems. The "First Salmon" ceremony was both a religious ceremony and a celebration of the yearly return of the salmon to the streams of northwest California. Families had ownership rights to specific oak trees and there were religion-based prohibitions on mistreating oaks and other culturally important plants and animals.
For people in Placer County today, there are also rules and regulations for protecting oaks and oak woodland. In the long run however, the conservation of oaks and the ecological and cultural values they provide will depend on public support for permanent protection. Building that support through enhancing the understanding of county residents about why oak woodland should be protected is a critical task for Placer Legacy.
About the Author
Richard R. Harris is currently working with Placer County on oak woodland management issues. He is a Registered Professional Forester with over 35 years of experience in environmental research, natural resource planning and management and forestry. He has a BS in Forestry, Masters in Landscape Architecture and Ph.D. in Wildland Resource Science, all from the University of California, Berkeley. He has worked as a county planner, principal of an environmental consulting firm, university professor and consulting environmental specialist. For 20 years he worked as Cooperative Extension Forestry Specialist at the University of California. During that time, he published over 80 journal articles and professional papers.