An oak stand

Patrick Veesart is the state-chapter liaison for the Sierra Club of California

Close your eyes and try to picture California in your mind. What do you see? The snowcapped Sierra Nevada? Towering redwoods shrouded in mist? The steep cliffs and crashing waves of the Big Sur coastline? Or perhaps golden hills studded with gray-green oak trees under a cyanic sky? Oak woodlands are one of California’s signature landscapes—a natural icon of the Golden State.

Oak woodlands are the richest terrestrial wildlife habitats in California. More than 330 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians depend upon them. These woodlands also are home to hundreds of species of plants and play a critical role in protecting soils, regulating water flow in watersheds and maintaining water quality in streams and rivers.

In the last 250 years, California has lost 90 percent of its majestic valley oaks and one-third of all species of oaks combined. Of an estimated 10 million to 12 million acres of original oak woodlands, only some 7 million acres remain. Most are degraded to some degree, and only about 4 percent enjoy protected status.

Oak woodlands continue to be affected by intensive urbanization and agriculture. The California Resources Agency projects that more than 14,000 acres of oaks are lost annually to development, rangeland “improvement” and conversion to more-intensive agricultural uses, such as vineyards.

Because oaks are considered “non-commercial” species, they are not subject to state laws that regulate timber harvest. Local protections, through resolutions, ordinances, general plans and voluntary efforts, generally have failed to slow the loss of California’s oak woodlands.

Senate Bill 711, introduced in the state Legislature last year by Senator Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, would have required California’s counties to prepare oak-woodland-management plans or ordinances that specify minimum mitigation standards for the loss of oak woodlands. Unfortunately, SB 711 was bottled up in the Assembly Appropriations Committee because of opposition from development and agriculture interests. The author intends to move it out of committee and to a vote in 2004.

SB 711 is a common-sense approach to protecting California’s vanishing oak woodlands that has the flexibility to allow development and agricultural activities to continue in areas where oaks occur.

California’s oak woodlands need and deserve protection. If our children and grandchildren are to enjoy our unique oak-studded landscapes, then it is incumbent upon us to take the steps necessary to preserve them now.