Preserving Oak Woodlands Through Partnership and Policy

December, 2016

Northern California is home to a diverse array of habitat types—from our coastal redwoods, maritime chaparral, coastal prairies, riparian woodlands and mixed conifer forests—but when it comes to plant and wildlife diversity, our region’s oak woodlands rank at the top of the list. 

In addition to supporting an extremely high level of biodiversity, oak woodlands control sediment erosion, protect water quality, provide forage and shade for rangeland animals and, because they are drought- and fire-adapted, are important as climate refugia. 

Unfortunately, as readers may be aware, oak woodlands face a serious threat. Since fire suppression became the norm in the mid-1900’s, conifers have been encroaching on, outcompeting and slowly killing older California black oak and Oregon white oak trees that comprise the pastoral woodland mosaic. For the better part of the past decade, the Northcoast Regional Land Trust (NRLT) has worked with private landowners and agency partners to protect this ecologically significant habitat type.

Aside from direct protections afforded by conservation easements, NRLT has been working with project partners on two initiatives aimed at providing landowners the tools they need to restore oak woodland stands. Although NRLT rarely jumps into the fray of policy, conservation of this unique habitat is a timely issue that has a broad base of support. And thanks to this broad support, the last few months have brought some exciting news. 

On September 24, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed AB 1958 updating the Forest Practice Act to allow for restoration of Northern California’s oak woodlands. The bill was introduced by Assemblymember Jim Wood and proudly co-sponsored by the Northcoast Regional Land Trust and The Buckeye.

Prior to passage of AB 1958, landowners who wanted to remove encroaching conifers from oak stands and sell any of the merchantable timber were required to restock the area with more conifers—thereby defeating the purpose for those interested in oak woodland restoration. The new law clarifies that removal of encroaching conifer trees from oak woodlands does not constitute a conversion of forestland. It also creates a seven year pilot exemption to the Timber Harvest Plan (THP) process that allows landowners to harvest smaller diameter conifers removed as part of oak woodland restoration activities. Although the oak exemption is now law, landowners...will likely have to wait another year or so for the Board of Forestry to adopt their enabling language.  If all proceeds as planned, the exemption should be on the books by January 1, 2018. In the interim, this is a great time for land managers to begin thinking about, and planning for, oak woodland restoration activities.

Coupled with the legislation, this summer a “special prescription” for oak woodland management was adopted by the California Board of Forestry.  This special prescription provides a THP pathway for landowners who are interested in restoring oak stands that are being outcompeted by larger-diameter conifer trees.  With this special prescription all the basic THP preparatory requirements are required including: wildlife surveys, archeological surveys and geologic review.  

The prescription eliminates the requirement to replant the stand with conifer seedlings by allowing post-project stocking to be met with two oak species: Oregon white oak and California black oak. The oak special prescription will be available on January 1, 2017. 

Taken together, the legislation and the special prescription represent a holistic policy package that is the culmination of many years of work by ecologists, foresters and other oak advocates that will give land stewards the ability to more easily and affordably restore and protect our region’s beautiful and ecologically important oak woodlands. 

As more landowners learn about these new tools, it is exciting to think about the potential to restore our region’s oak woodlands and protect the biodiversity, cultural significance and climate resilience that is inherent in this unique habitat type.  

We are very grateful to Assemblymember Jim Wood and his staff for introducing and guiding AB 1958 through the process. We also want to recognize and thank in particular Yana Valachovic, her team at the U.C. Cooperative Extension; Mike Miles and the Board of Forestry; landowners and the many oak advocates out there for their leadership, research and outreach on the importance of oak woodland conservation and the policy steps needed to get there.

To learn more about oak woodlands and conifer encroachment visit:  http://ucanr.edu/sites/oak_range/Conifer_Encroachment/