Valley Oak Conference: An Important First Step
In June 1999, the Integrated Hardwood Range Management Program (IHRMP), in cooperation with several agencies and non-governmental organizations,1 sponsored a statewide conference entitled A Future for Valley Oaks: Developing Partnerships for the Next Century. The purpose of the conference was to assess the status of valley oak communities throughout California and develop a comprehensive conservation strategy.
There are roughly eight different types of valley oak communities, all of which occur only in California. These once covered much of the Central Valley and stretched from the North Coast Ranges in Mendocino County to the Transverse Ranges in southern California, most often occurring on rich alluvial soils. Native Californians relied on the productive wildlife habitat provided by valley oak woodlands and used the large valley oak acorns as a food staple. Since European settlement, valley oaks have been used for firewood and fueling steamboats along the large Delta rivers, and have been removed to make way for farmland and housing developments. Unfortunately, this has taken its toll on the health and extent of this community type, with areas only supporting valley oaks on 10% of their historical range. Currently, there are approximately 75,000 acres of valley oak woodland, with only a small portion of this habitat held in public ownership. Conserving this important part of our natural resource heritage will continue to be a challenge, given California’s population growth rate and associated pressures.
The main goal of the 1999 conference was to develop a strategy to ensure the long-term viability of valley oak communities. For over a decade, individuals and organizations have conducted important research and developed informative education programs, but no single unifying framework has brought together this diverse set of stakeholders to work on solutions in a systematic way. The coalition of organizations that sponsored the conference and took part in drafting the strategy document represent many of the individuals who have pioneered work on valley oaks, as well as new groups not traditionally involved in valley oak issues. The diversity of interest in valley oak communities was further reflected in the approximately 120 people who attended the conference. Participants included teachers, landowners, public agency personnel, and researchers.
The first portion of the conference consisted of plenary sessions in which speakers from around the state summarized past and present research and field observations, providing the most complete picture of valley oak communities to date.
After the plenary session, working sessions allowed participants to discuss challenges facing valley oak communities throughout California. The lively discussions were led by moderators from sponsor organizations and focused on identifying creative solutions to some of the more widespread challenges.
A technical committee composed of educators, farmers, private landowners, public agency personnel, individuals from conservation organizations, and researchers met the next day to synthesize the previous day’s information into a set of clearly defined priorities that will provide the basis for a comprehensive collaborative conservation strategy. The technical committee identified four priority areas: research, restoration, public policy, and education/outreach.
Not all of the questions raised fell into clearly defined areas, but there often was common ground among disparate interests. For example, each of the four groups identified a need for a centralized information clearinghouse. After animated discussions, they envisioned an interactive website accessible to the public, where a wide variety of information could be stored. This information could include research results, curricula ideas for school groups, local policies, restoration techniques with information about particular projects, and ongoing monitoring data. An interactive map with the distribution and extent of valley oak communities could allow land managers and others to contribute information on plant composition or wildlife habitat to the centralized database. While some of this information currently resides at various websites, a more comprehensive site would reinforce an effort for a statewide approach and provide a ‘one-stop-shop’ of information on valley oaks.
With a resource that extends throughout most of California, it is imperative that a comprehensive conservation effort start with the big picture. We need to ask: How many valley oak woodlands are left? What size are the existing patches? Where are they located in relationship to each other? Unfortunately, the current state and extent of valley oak communities is not adequately understood. Multiple maps exist; however the general consensus is that many past attempts focused on parts of the resource, and a more thorough and up-to-date picture is needed to inform conservation, restoration, and research decisions. This effort could help identify large patches of intact woodland that may be given priority for conservation, or smaller patches that could be ideal candidates for restoration.
Restoration is a relatively new tool in conservation. While ecologists work to understand the underlying mechanisms that make ecosystems function and how this relates to the recovery of an imperiled system, land managers have performed on-the-ground experiments and learned new techniques to assist in the success of restoration efforts. Too often funds are limited, and monitoring to determine the success of a particular technique or project is not carried out. Development of a cohesive systematic approach, which includes clear guidelines for assessing the feasibility of restoring proposed sites, was identified as a priority. Such an approach could increase the success of restoration projects statewide and reduce the overall cost.
Public emphasis is often on the negative impacts facing these imperiled natural resources and the extensive work yet to be accomplished. While this can create increased awareness of the issue, important accomplishments can be overlooked. An award was proposed to recognize and honor those individuals and organizations that have actively contributed to the ongoing conservation effort. This award would provide an opportunity to share small and large successes and illustrate how one person or effort can make a difference.
The preceding examples are just a few of the priorities identified at the conference. The IHRMP is currently refining the priorities and integrating them into a comprehensive conservation strategy document. This document will provide general information about valley oak communities, including past research and new insights presented at the conference, as well as challenges facing the conservation of these unique and endemic communities. When completed, the strategy document will be revised by the technical committee and submitted for public comment.
For more information about the strategy document and valley oaks see http://danr.ucop.edu/ihrmp.
1 Bureau of Land Management, California Association of Winegrape Growers, California Association of Resource Conservation Districts, California Board of Forestry, California Department of Fish and Game, California Native Plant Society, California Oak Foundation, California Rangeland Trust, The Nature Conservancy, US Environmental Protection Agency, UC Center for Forestry, and the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program
edited by Adina Merenlender and Emily Heaton