Oak woodlands are truly special places. Among ecologists, they are famous for holding troves of species, many of which are unique to oak habitats. On a personal level, I find them utterly surreal. With relatively flat terrain, a parklike canopy, and abundant plants and animals (and in the case of southwest Oregon, magical vernal pools), oak woodlands are an idyllic and comforting place to wander in spring and early summer. Unfortunately, the virtues of oak woodlands have also been their downfall.
Because they occur in the lower and flatter parts of southwest Oregon, oak woodlands are located where people also want to live. First farms and ranches, then orchards and vineyards, and finally cities, suburbs, and other developments have replaced the oaks since Europeans arrived. Shockingly, less than 10% of Oregon’s historic oak woodlands still exist. What habitat remains is often degraded by fire suppression and invasive plants. With this decline in oak habitat, species like Lewis’s Woodpecker and Southern Oregon Buttercup (Ranunculus austro-oreganus) have suffered as well.
But what I find most troubling is that we just don’t seem to care that much. How often do you hear people talk about their favorite oak woodland or lament the decline of oak habitat? Unlike evergreen-covered mountainsides, oak woodlands only take your breath away if you look closely during a specific time of year; but boy can they take your breath away.
Conserving Oregon’s remaining oak habitat is a challenge because much of it is on private property. Fortunately, SOLC is the local expert on conservation easements, a way for private landowners to protect their property from development in perpetuity. Last month I joined their Land Steward, Karen Hussey, on a trip to monitor such an easement outside of Eagle Point.
A key part of Karen’s job is to be a trusted source of information for private landowners who put their land into conservation easements. There are many reasons people choose to do so but what unites them is a love for their land. SOLC staff meet with all the landowners each year, listen to their stories, and work with them to create a plan to achieve their goals while enhancing the conservation value of their land. It’s a job that I often envy.
On this particular site visit we started by chatting with the landowner, Jim. While Ash-throated Flycatchers and Rufus Hummingbirds chattered around us, Jim recounted the challenges of controlling invasive plants, redirecting trespassers, and nursing sick trees. But underneath all the work, it was clear that Jim really loved this property for its solitude and beauty. I would too.
After our conversation, Karen and I headed into the oak woodland above Jim’s house to put up some snazzy new SOLC boundary signs. Although we came during the dry season, it was clear that wildflowers were abundant in the spring. There were also some impressively large, old oaks to admire, and we came across two clusters of deer/elk beds. I had to leave after a couple hours, but I could spend several days exploring the plants and views of that property.
Oak habitat requires dedicated stewards to actively manage it. If you happen to own oak habitat that you’d like to protect, consider reaching out to SOLC and/or the Klamath-Rogue Oak Woodland Health and Habitat Conservation Project. If you don’t own oak habitat, I highly recommend spending some quality time with it at Roxy Ann Peak, Jacksonville Woodlands, and Upper and Lower Table Rocks. The oaks need more people to fall in love with them!