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Oaks are a keystone species in California, being near them is a good way to lose track of time

Jul 17, 2023

By Jack Easton | Contributing Columnist

For me, an oak woodland is a place to lose track of time and to feel a deep sense of connection with systems and cycles much larger and much longer-lived than myself. Individual oak trees can live for hundreds of years. In the words of a local ecologist, they have 200 years to live, 200 years to die. An entire oak woodland and its inhabitants occupy their place on the landscape for thousands of years, generation after generation after generation.

To see tiny seedlings sprouting beneath an ancient oak whose limbs are drooping or broken is to get both a short-term and a long-term perspective on natural cycles that are completed and repeated season after season, year after year, decade upon decade. And it is to realize that such cycles surround us all, and connect us with nature in our own lives and communities. These are the lessons of old man oak.

In California, oaks are a keystone species for ecosystems and human communities alike. A keystone species is a species that has an outsized effect on its natural environment and helps to define a natural system. Oak-dominated vegetation covers about 12 million acres of California and is found from sea level to an elevation of over 9,000 feet. Oaks are home to more than 5,000 species of insects and over 330 species of amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals.

Oak at Rivers & Lands Conservancy’s Massinger property in 2010. (Courtesy of Rivers & Lands Conservancy)

Oak at Rivers & Lands Conservancy’s Massinger property in 2013. (Courtesy of Rivers & Lands Conservancy)

Oak at Rivers & Lands Conservancy’s Harthill property in 2016. (Courtesy of Rivers & Lands Conservancy)

Over many centuries, Native California tribes lived within and depended on oak woodlands for food and other materials. Today, indigenous Californians continue to use oaks for the same cultural, social, and spiritual purposes as their ancestors, creatively blending the older ways with newer techniques.

You will find oaks in all four national forests of Southern California. They are also found in numerous city and county parks, regional preserves, and land trust conservation properties. Many cities have planted and maintain oaks as street trees and as amenities in parks. In much of Southern California, you are always near an oak and can easily enjoy its shade and appreciate its many other benefits.

Walk through your neighborhood, visit a nearby park, go to a national forest and find an oak tree. Then stop to take the time to engage your senses. Look at the trunk, limbs, and canopy. Touch the bark, feel the nooks and crannies. Listen to the hum and buzz of insects and the calls of birds. Breathe in the cool air of the shade beneath the canopy. Dig your fingers into the fallen leaves and inhale the scents from the deeper layers where the leaves and twigs become soil. Look closely at the canopy, in springtime you may see light green or yellow tassels, the flowers that are called oak catkins. Later in the year the catkins will develop into acorns and in a good year the acorns will be abundant. Take the time to be fully aware of the oak and its setting. The more you look, the longer you listen, the deeper you breathe, the more you’ll find to appreciate.

Reach out to conservation organizations to learn how you can help to conserve oak woodlands while at the same time learning about and appreciating the values of oaks.

Rivers & Lands Conservancy’s “Acorns to Oaks” program introduces under-served high school biology students to oak ecology and stewardship through hands-on restoration of native oak woodland at Cienega Canyon Preserve. The students gain experiences in nature that are new and indelible. It’s these experiences that help them understand why they are learning about oak ecology, gathering acorns, and helping with woodland restoration. They discover that everything is connected and wild places matter. Rivers & Lands Conservancy holds multiple events through the year where the public can volunteer to restore oak woodland by planting, weeding, and watering oak seedlings.

The importance of oaks as a keystone species encompasses not only wildlife and plants but also the human community. You can easily enjoy and appreciate the values and benefits of oaks near your home, in a park or preserve, or working as a volunteer to restore oak woodland.

Jack Easton is a former board member, staff member and a retired executive director of Rivers & Lands Conservancy, has a B.S. degree in Forestry, and gladly spent his career of over 35 years working in land and habitat conservation.

Rivers & Lands Conservancy connects our community to natural, wild, and open spaces of Southern California through land conservation, stewardship, and education.

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