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Fighting for legacies

COLESTIN VALLEY — For the vast majority of its 400-plus years, a mammoth black oak rising from a hill outside of the Colestin Valley has been a vibrant giver of life.

Oak titmice would nest in its cavities while everything from black-tailed deer, woodpeckers and even Native Americans feasted on its bountiful acorn crop, but 60 years of bad neighbors have inflicted a heavy price.

Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine seedlings encroached on its space, sapping its water until the fast-growing conifers over the decades grew above the oak's canopy, commandeering its sunlight and snuffing out its leaves.

"For this one, it's almost too late," says Marko Bey, executive director of the Ashland-based Lomakatsi Restoration Project.

But treatment in the form of Lomakatsi crews dropping some of the offending firs, burning out the choking brush and replacing it with native grasses will invigorate this old oak, a remnant of the legacy trees that used to dominate Southern Oregon's lowland landscapes.

"We're unearthing these treasures buried in here and bringing them back to life," Bey says. "These legacy trees are what we're trying to hang onto. We just want to give these oaks a chance."

About 3,000 acres of such oaks in Southern Oregon and Northern California will get that chance thanks to a $3 million federal grant Lomakatsi earned last week to tackle conifers encroaching on what's left of prime oak habitat found largely on private land.

The Klamath-Rogue Oak Woodland Health and Habitat Conservation Project was one of five Oregon projects that collectively received about $22 million of federal Farm Bill money through the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service's Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

Other sponsors and partners in the oak project include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Ashland-based Klamath Bird Observatory.

The grant will help continue thinning projects Lomakatsi has done since 2009 in the Colestin Valley, east of Mount Ashland, and expand them to the Table Rocks area, as well as land near Upper Klamath Lake and other places in Siskiyou County.

Over the next five years, the group will survey properties of willing landowners, identifying the large oaks in need of help and creating treatment plans that will break the oak free from choking conifers while ensuring that the wildlife using them isn't harmed.

In some cases, the encroaching conifers will be cut, piled and burned, Bey says. Others will be girdled to turn them into snags for wildlife, and some can be cut and sold as small-diameter merchantable timber, he says.

Controlled fire will burn out the smaller firs, pines and brush that chainsaws can't get. KBO and Lomakatsi also will be conducting post-treatment monitoring to document the impacts of the projects.

About 93 percent of Oregon's oak woodlands have fallen to development or overgrowth from decades of fire suppression, and oak-dependent animals ranging from acorn woodpeckers to titmice are suffering along with their lost habitat.

"They (Lomakatsi) are after the trees that have a lot of the characteristics these birds key on," says Jaime Stephen, KBO's science director. "It's a significant project and we're glad to be part of it."

Since most oak woodlands are in low elevation, they are largely on private lands where landowners like Mark Lacoste often cannot handle the thinning work.

When Lacoste bought his 220 acres in the Colestin Valley a dozen years ago, he knew the thinning it needed was more work than he could do alone.

After surveys identified Lacoste's area as containing some of these legacy oaks, Bey contacted Lacoste and so far has treated about 85 acres.

"I don't want to have a tree farm," Lacoste says. "This is a way to be doing land stewardship, taking care of the land and keeping it in good shape."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Marko Bey, executive director of the Ashland-based Lomakatsi Restoration Project, checks out a large oak tree in the Colestin Valley. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch