By editorial board • 

Restoring native savanna a cause worthy of support

Susan Watkins and Arnie Hollander are paying a steep price for helping reverse the 150-year decline of Oregon white oak in the Yamhill Valley. Instead, we should be finding them harmless, if not dangling an incentive.

“From the top of these (hills), at an altitude of about 1,000 feet,” expeditionary surveyor George Emmons observed in 1841, one sees “prairie to the south as far as they view extends ... streams being easily traced by a border of trees that gree up on either bank ... white oak scattered about in all directions.”

This was certainly not news to the Kalapuya Indians. Before being uprooted by European settlers, they had a long history of using fire to maintain the oak savanna dominating the valley floor.

That practice served to stimulate seed production and germination and provide natural fertilizer for camas root, tarweed root and seed, and other dietary staples. It nurtured a rich array of wildlife, including many species useful to the Kalapuya and several now considered endangered.

Today, it would take sharp eyes to spot the occasional fire-tolerant oak towering over cropland on the floor and vineyard in the surrounding hills. It would take X-ray vision to spot remnants of native prairie grass sheltered by undisturbed stands of white oak — key contributors to the valley’s original biodiversity.

The radical transformation was touched off by immigrants who began swarming to Oregon in the 1840s. They cleared trees to prepare fields for cultivation and wood for homes, barns, fences and fireplaces.

They left many stands of oak in the hills above the valley floor. But over the last half century, those stands have largely fallen victim to a burgeoning wine industry, which values steep hillsides over the expanses of flatland below. (To the industry’s credit, myriad vintners and vineyard landowners are now major partners in the effort to restore oak habitat.)

Eventually, increasing habitation began raising concerns about loss of productive farmland to development. In response, the government began offering incentives for keeping rural lands under cultivation, notably a substantial farm-use deferral tax break.

Watkins and Hollander took advantage by clearing land for commercial Christmas trees and Douglas fir operations. But they have since embraced a more noble if less lucrative cause — restoring 55 acres of the valley’s original oak savanna.

Here’s the problem: They have to forgo farm-use deferral, which tips the financial scales decidedly against them. The state has a program in place to  ease the sting, but Yamhill County ceased participating in the 1990s.

We think reversal is long overdue. We urge the board of commissioners to right the scales.

Watkins and Hollander have the commitment and wherewithal to forge ahead anyway, but other landowners might not. A state-funded counterbalance could make a big difference, and there’s no credible reason for us to continue opting out.

Ideologically conservative county leaders have long been wary of big-government aid programs. But this one comes with virtually no strings attached and no costs to bear. Withholding access serves only to penalize the very citizens underwriting county operations with their tax dollars.

Hail to the oak, enduring symbol of Oregon’s hardy pioneer spirit.


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