Sonoma county residents love their oak trees, and with good reason: Oak woodlands are a source of immense value not just to the more than 330 types of animals and hundreds of other organisms they support, but also to the cultural, economic, and social fabric of our society. Sudden oak death (SOD) threatens to unhinge these systems, imperil biodiversity, create hazard trees or fuel for fires, and potentially infect agriculturally or horticulturally important plants. So whether it means adapting educational events to virtual spaces, delivering materials by mail, training online, answering home phones instead of staffing the Master Gardener desk, or collecting leaves for the SOD blitz by bicycle while wearing a mask and social distancing, the UCCE Sonoma SOD Program is not letting COVID-19 slow us down.
A key endeavor of this group is the yearly Sudden Oak Death Blitz in partnership with UC Berkeley's Forest Pathology and Mycology Lab. This state-wide citizen science project allows landowners to receive free testing of California bay laurel and tanoak leaves, contribute to long-term scientific research, and update the SOD Map Mobile app used by landowners and professionals to assess disease risk in their area. As SOD Blitz creator Dr. Matteo Garbelotto wrote in a letter addressed to all Californians about this year's program,
“The SOD Blitzes have become a tradition for many, while providing key information to help us save our oaks from a devastating disease.”
UCCE Sonoma hosts six blitz events annually whereas most counties hold just one, and we were eager to test new areas of tree mortality that were discovered after last-year's blitz had already passed. Here's how we made it work:
- Training took place online.
- Three Zoom sessions were set up with SOD team members for participant questions.
- Collection packets were mailed to most participants, and the rest picked up following strict safety guidelines supervised by staff.
- Leaves were collected at homes and on public land by walkers, cyclists, and others engaging in outdoor exercise.
- Kashia Pomo staff continued to sample on their land.
- In collaboration with SSU's Center for Environmental Inquiry, we hosted the only SOD blitz in the state that was fully bilingual in Spanish and English.
Despite limitations posed by COVID-19 regarding how to train volunteers, access areas where leaves could be sampled, and safely pass materials and samples between participants and blitz organizers, this year's campaign is on track to be even more successful than 2019. Returning leaves by mail instead of in-person allowed residents on the coast and other remote areas to participate easily, leading to a better geographic distribution of sampling. Online trainings and Q&A sessions, though less personal and lacking physical demonstrations, encouraged people with schedule constraints to give the blitz a try. One participant with extra time on his hands reported that he thought this was a great way to give back to the community in a time of need. Based on the number of participants and collection packets requested, we estimate a 15% increase in sampling from last year, including all major areas of Sonoma county and most of Mendocino county.
And things are just getting started. Though a SOD-themed Plant Walk with the local Milo Baker chapter of the California Native Plant Society was postponed, discussions are underway about creating a live virtual field trip in its place, complete with 360 degree photos of highlighted spots along the trail. Similarly, SOD Specialist Master Gardeners have been presenting at public library series' for years, and are now hoping to create a recorded version to be posted on UCCE Sonoma's Sudden Oak Death webpage. Check back for announcements on these and other happenings.
Our gratitude goes out to every volunteer who has invested their time in staying educated, spreading the word, and participating in citizen science with us over the years, especially during the current shelter-in-place, with special recognition for our dedicated team of SOD Specialist Master Gardeners. We couldn't help our oaks without you!