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The Mighty Oak : Their Dwindling Numbers Have Sparked Efforts to Save the Hardy Pioneers


Pearl and William Sloan are so crazy about oak trees that they built their Topanga Canyon house around one. Forty-five years ago, William spent a year hand-digging his home's foundation to avoid damaging the tree's roots. Its thick, branching trunk now rises through the living room like a rustic pillar--and then keeps going through the roof and into the sky. "We give it a lot of love," says Pearl. "We're always patting it."

While not everyone would go this far for a tree, there's nothing that stirs up Californians like ancient oaks casting smoky shadows over dry gold hills. What many aficionados don't know is that time is running out for these craggy monuments, which once rambled across 10 million acres of our state and now cover less than 7.5 million. Los Angeles County, formerly home to significant stands of native oaks, today boasts only a few isolated pockets, most too small to register on state forestry maps.

Though efforts are under way to save and replenish oak woodlands threatened by development, homeowners can help too, according to Rosi Dagit, a consultant for the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District. As part of its overall program to provide natural resource management information to the public, the district offers advice, brochures and referrals to private citizens as well as developers who want to preserve existing oaks or plant new ones.

In the wilds of Southern California, oaks are hardy pioneers that subsist on meager winter rainfall and nourishment from their own fallen, decayed leaves. In captivity, they can suffer terribly at the hands of human beings, who over-water them, hack branches willy-nilly and mash their roots with machines.

"Oaks are a keystone species of tree," Dagit says. "Five thousand known insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals require oaks for some or all of their life cycle needs. Lose the oaks, you lose the rest."

Dagit, who has recently completed a study of the effectiveness of the 1988 revision of the 1982 L. A. County Oak Tree Ordinance, which aims to preserve and propagate oaks, considers the trees ideal for residential gardens. Not only do mature oaks add 25% to 30% to a home's value, she says, but contrary to common belief, they grow quickly (up to five feet in a single year) and thrive if properly cared for.

Proper care means no summer watering (which makes the trees vulnerable to killing fungi) and no planting of thirsty greenery under--or even near--oak canopies. Native plants, drought-tolerant once established, make good companions for oaks, though ideally, Dagit advises, there should be nothing at all under the trees except their own leaf litter. Porous paving--such as bricks laid on sand--is acceptable in patio situations and, for safety's sake, weak branches above heavily used areas should be strengthened with cables.

Oak pruning is best left to the experts, Dagit believes, since improper cuts invite disease. So do roots mangled when trenches are dug for home foundations and utilities. On the other hand, more visible alterations such as lichen-covered trunks or insect infestations are no cause for alarm. "Don't reach for the spray," Dagit cautions. "Lichen doesn't hurt the tree, and bugs eventually go away."

For homeowners with ailing oaks, her office keeps a list of tree experts who charge $65 and up to diagnose and treat the problem. The forestry unit of the Los Angeles County Fire Department makes free house visits when oak troubles arise. For purposes of erosion control, the same agency dispenses free oak seedlings to the public from December through April at local fire stations.

To protect oaks from vandalism or other external threats, Dagit's office will, at a cost of $10.87 per tree, register private oaks, forwarding records of their existence to the Forestry Division and the county's Regional Planning Department, as well as assisting owners with their care.

For those who want to contribute to preservation on a larger level, the Mountains Restoration Trust at Malibu Creek State Park runs the Commemorative Oaks program as part of an effort to restore degraded oak savannah. For fees ranging from $25 to $10,000, trust volunteers will plant a single tree or dedicate an entire existing grove in honor of an individual or special occasion.

As Dagit points out, several other agencies and associations are working to save our oaks--and the related natural landscape--before it's too late. The California Native Plant Society offers a low-cost guide to gardening with natives, and an extensive plant list to go with it. The California Oak Foundation produces several informative brochures as well as a quarterly newsletter focused on native oak protection and propagation.

It goes without saying, of course, that there's no more dramatic evidence of an oak's comforts than the tree itself. William Sloan can't imagine life without his favorite oak: "It cools us in summer," he says. "It rustles with the wind. We're pretty much in love with it."

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