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News / Clark County News

New Southwest Washington working group strives to return imperiled Oregon white oak tree to former range

Trees now dot less than 10 percent of the range they historically occupied

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 24, 2024, 6:06am
4 Photos
Above, researchers estimate that white oaks now dot less than 10 percent of the range they historically occupied before European settlements were established. Oak communities have historically been cleared to build homes and businesses or to convert expanses to agricultural sites.
Above, researchers estimate that white oaks now dot less than 10 percent of the range they historically occupied before European settlements were established. Oak communities have historically been cleared to build homes and businesses or to convert expanses to agricultural sites. (Photo contributed by Oregon State University) Photo Gallery

Oregon white oak communities are one of North America’s most imperiled habitats, according to the Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit.

But there’s a glaring absence of conservation work being done in Southwest Washington — until recently.

A newly formed working group, which includes state government agencies and nonprofits, is seeking to address dwindling ranges of white oak woodland, prairie and savannah systems from Chehalis to Vancouver. Several of these groups already exist throughout the region, bookended by British Columbia and Northern California.

A white oak, with its wide trunk, long limbs and broad shape, can support hundreds of species as an ample food source, protective shelter and breeding grounds. Many species that depend on white oaks are threatened or endangered, including the western gray squirrel and Taylors checkerspot butterfly.

Did You Know?

Oregon white oaks …

  • can live 500 years.
  • grow about 1 inch in diameter over 10 years.
  • are Washington’s only native oak.
  • are also called “Garry Oak,” named after Nicholas Garry, a Hudson’s Bay Company deputy governor.

Source: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife seeks to protect white oak habitat. Isaac Holowatz, a state habitat biologist, said removal of just one tree “can make a considerable difference” and have a domino effect in the environment.

Obstacles confronting preservation efforts include limited funds, habitat segmentation and lack of public understanding, said Sarah Hamman, science director at the Ecostudies Institute, an Olympia-based nonprofit helping coordinate the working group.

The region has made some strides, however. In Toledo, a town 20 miles south of Chehalis, the Cowlitz Indian Tribe continues to foster the resurgence of blue-purple camas, a prominent native flower found in oak savannas. In 2019, the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge felled hundreds of overcrowding Douglas firs to encourage the growth of oak woodlands in the northern loop of the Oaks to Wetlands Trail. Volunteers continue to return to the Lacamas Prairie Natural Area, a trove of rare plant species that sit among white oak forest.

But white oak recovery will take time. Mature oaks removed from the landscape took hundreds of years to grow and will take that long to replace, Holowatz said.

Moving the dial

The Southwest Washington working group has met twice, in June and December.

Partners who attended include regional land trusts, conservation districts, state and federal agencies, conservation organizations and farms, as well as private landowners. Pacific Birds Habitat Joint Venture serves as an umbrella organizer for the Pacific Northwest.

Altogether, Hamman said, they’ve just started the conversation: who is interested and involved, what is currently being done, what are attainable goals and who should be at the table but isn’t.

But that isn’t where the discussion stops.

In the spring, the group will assemble a panel of experts, ranging from biologists to members of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. They will set priorities and opportunities to restore the region’s oak woodlands, as well as the majestic hillsides of prairie grass and flowers that accompany them.

Farther east, the East Cascades Oak Partnership focuses on white oak conservation in Klickitat, Skamania and Yakima counties in Washington, as well as Oregon’s Hood River and Wasco counties. Lindsay Cornelius, the group’s manager, attested to the lengthy duration and complexity of work required to form a working group and strategic plan.

East Cascades Oak Partnership engaged with its stakeholders over two years to build a base of understanding, examine goals and identify means of improvement.

As a Southwest Washington work group is established, state officials continue to update guidance for offsetting land-use impacts on white oak woodlands.

It can be difficult to convey the importance of white oak habitat, said Maddie Nolan, a co-author of the report and assistant regional habitat program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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White oaks help survival of species ranging from fungi to squirrels. Long after an oak dies, too, its decayed snags provide habitat.

“Explaining this value can be difficult when people only see a tree,” Nolan said. “Nature is not tidy. It’s messy. Trying to get people to let nature be this way, in general, is a huge challenge in our work.”

‘Very little is left’

Researchers estimate that white oaks now dot less than 10 percent of the range they historically occupied before European settlements were established. Oak communities have historically been cleared to build homes and businesses or for farming.

Wildlife and other plant species that rely on oaks have diminished, too.

“Very little is left,” Hamman said. “Without stewardship, they will be gone.”

Indigenous people tended to oak woodlands, prairies and savannahs, managing expanses with low-level fires. These blazes cleared crowded understories and sustained healthy soil, which promoted the growth of seed and berry plants. Wildlife would graze in open plains where oaks, a sturdy fire-resistant tree, remained.

Once white settlers displaced Indigenous communities, an equally disruptive change occurred across these landscapes, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fire management halted, allowing for fast-growing Douglas firs to move in and compete for space and resources with slow-growing white oaks.

Success of oak stewardship extends beyond acres preserved and is tricky to measure. Instead, triumph may be less tangible.

Holowatz envisions more collaboration for white oak preservation taking place among agencies and organizations, landowners and developers. This will be a measure of success.

As time progresses, Nolan similarly hopes discussions surrounding conservation will change. A paradigm shift might be subtle at first, but it will indicate a change.

“We won’t be spending all our time trying to justify why we’re asking to avoid and minimize impacts,” Nolan said.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer