COLESTIN VALLEY — Dave Ross listened with a practiced ear while standing in the Oregon white oak woodlands in the Cottonwood Creek drainage.

COLESTIN VALLEY — Dave Ross listened with a practiced ear while standing in the Oregon white oak woodlands in the Cottonwood Creek drainage.

"Some of the critters you hear calling are the blue-gray gnatcatchers over here and the acorn woodpeckers over there," said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist based in Klamath Falls. "I also heard some sparrows chirping earlier.

"This oak system is the most valuable habitat in Oregon for migratory birds," he added as a pair of golden eagles floated on the winds high above the trees. "But in many cases the oak is really threatened. Oak woodlands are the third most endangered forests systems in the United States."

In fact, only 4 to 7 percent of Oregon's original oak woodland habitat remain, said Marko Bey, director of the nonprofit Lomakatsi environmental restoration organization based in Ashland. The group recently received $190,000 in funding from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service for oak habitat restoration projects on local private lands this year.

The funding from the NRCS, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is part of $1.5 million awarded for seven conservation projects in Oregon through the Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative. The focus area of the Central Umpqua Oak Restoration Project includes private lands from Douglas County south through Jackson County into Siskiyou County in northern California.

"The willingness of the landowners to participate in this partnership is so important," Bey said. "Here in the Colestin Valley, they care about the ecology and are working with us to help restore the oak habitat."

He and Ross were checking out a 55-acre parcel in the Colestin Valley near the Oregon border where the partnership has begun working on restoring the oak woodland. Joining them were Erin Kurtz and Peter Winnick, both with the NRCS office in Medford.

"The partnerships are key," said Kurtz, district conservationist for NRCS in Jackson County. "We all want to make a difference. We all have limited time, limited staff. By working together we get more work done over a larger area."

Unlike a conifer forest where a precommercial thinning producing lumber is often the result, a thinning project in an oak woodland is not about monetary gain, said Winnick, a soil conservationist.

"There is really not a lot of economical return out here," he said. "Instead, it is aesthetic, ecological."

The local project is for three years of work, followed by two years of contract management, Kurtz said.

"It is expensive work to do," she added. "With $190,000 that is just for this year, you can probably treat several hundred acres."

In the Colestin Valley alone, they expect to treat about 1,000 acres of oak woodlands on private land in the Cottonwood Creek watershed, Bey said.

"Part of the objective here is to reduce fire severity so we don't burn up the oak," he said. "But this is not your standard fuels treatment. You will have a lot more of a wildlife, patchy mosaic-type thin. We leave clumps of oak. It is not your typical thin."

A low-intensity fire to burn brush and invasive species while leaving the large trees was conducted at the site last fall.

The story of the dwindling oak population is fairly straight-forward.

"Conifers grow a lot faster and will overtake the oaks," Ross explained. "Fire suppression and long-term life stock grazing in this valley both have things to do with it. When you don't have fire, there is nothing to kill the little conifers."

In turn, stock grazing the grass reduce the smaller ladder fuel that would ignite trees, he said.

Until wild fire suppression began a century ago, low-intensity fires burned through the valley every seven to 30 years, Bey estimated.

Bey and Kurtz measured one large black oak which was 65 inches in circumference at chest height. The massive legacy tree was likely growing on the mountain side when the nation was born, Bey noted.

"When we are doing treatment, we will take out any little oaks that are under the drip line of the big oaks," Kurtz said, noting the big trees with thicker bark are more likely to survive a wild fire. "A historic fire would have probably taken out any of the less-resistant stragglers."

Through the partnership, the work will provide a summer's work for a crew of ten to 15 people, Bey estimated.

"These are family wage jobs," he said, adding that about four truckloads of small logs will be harvested from thinning on the other side of the property. "The goal is oak restoration but a by-product of the restoration will be the conifer logs."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.