If you have spent any time in the Zena Forest, or talked with me at the mill, chances are Oregon White Oak has come up in conversation. It may very likely have been the topic of conversation. I have grown to love both this particular tree species as well as the ecosystem that goes with it. There are few images more iconically representative of the Willamette Valley than a cluster of Oregon White Oak trees next to a field.
150 years ago, the Willamette Valley was almost completely covered with Oregon White Oak trees. The valley was a mix of grasslands and oak trees, otherwise known as an Oak Savannah. These savannas were the result of repeated burning by the Native American's who lived in the valley. The burning encouraged the growth of Camas, a vital food source, and created huntable landscapes for big game. Oregon White Oak is one of the most fire resistant trees native to the valley, and as a result, the repeated fires encouraged oak trees and grasses to flourish, while at the same time relegating many other species, including Douglas Fir to a much more minor role in the valley ecosystem.
Over the last 150 years, European settlement and a dramatic shift in land management priorities has produced the valley that we know today. A valley where only about 5% of the native oak ecosystem is left. Think about where you see oak trees in the valley today. There are little pockets and clusters of oaks all over the place. Imagine what the valley must have looked like. Twenty times more oaks than we have today! There are many reasons for the decline of oak trees in the valley, removal of fire and settlement being two of the main ones.
With the advent of the timber industry in Oregon, foresters, loggers, sawyers, and builders only had eyes for Douglas Fir. Here was a miracle tree that had incredible lumber, grew fast, was easy to saw, dry and work with and would grow almost anywhere. In contrast, Oregon White Oak was a slow growing crooked tree that took forever to dry. As a result, a hardwood industry never developed in Oregon, and the oaks were cut down for firewood, and were replaced with farm fields and stands of Douglas Fir.
Stay tuned for part two of "What is so Special about Oregon White Oak"