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Napa Valley oaks and urban forest

Did you know that most of Napa Valley was, for millennia, a managed oak woodland?  

I heard, at a presentation on oaks (“Valley Oaks, An Ecological Journey Through Time,” San Francisco Estuary Institute, Dec. 8, 2011), that individual families of the indigenous people took responsibility for specific large stands of oaks and actively managed them, generation after generation, as a long-term resource for subsistence.

Oaks on the valley floor were decimated by farming over the past 150 years or so. Look from a vantage point, like Oakville Grade Road, or Silverado Trail near Oakville, and compare the expanse of vineyards with the scattered oaks and wooded hills.  

Thanks largely to Napa’s exemplary Ag Preserve ordinance, that expanse is green with vineyards as well as oaks — albeit fewer oaks than before modern settlers arrived here — and not covered with sprawling housing developments, parking lots and commercial buildings.

One Texan I know, who has seen the world and gets to visit his home in Napa only on occasion, considers Napa Valley the crown jewel of the planet.

As you look across the valley and travel the roads you will notice many of the oaks we have now on the level land, most suitable for farming, exist in corridors along roadways, watercourses and property boundaries. More than once I have been asked, “Why do oaks grow in straight rows?” In some areas, the fence may be gone, but the oak rows are living artifacts, reflecting old property boundaries, the location where the oaks escaped the plow or the brush cutter.

It looks as though corridors and peripheral areas hold some good potential for the future of oaks on the valley floor.

Many people around the valley wish to take action to improve our urban forests and bring back some of what was lost.

I recently received a call from someone who has initiated a conversation with CalTrans, looking into the possibility of planting oaks on the Highway 29 median between Napa and Yountville. Currently studded with oaks and eucalyptus, the space is largely relegated to star thistle, a pest plant. With some community involvement and planning, we could have a classic valley oak corridor in the heart of the valley for centuries to come.

Othes have projects and events in mind, including a potential plan for Napa’s urban forest, plus a tree and urban forest forum, potentially scheduled for this fall

If you are interested in such things, watch this space for details as they become available or jump in and contact your local Tree Advisory Commission.

Note: My class, Arboriculture, Preparing for Certification, offered through Napa Valley Adult Education, begins at 7 p.m. Aug.  27 (10 Monday nights, through Nov. 5). If you are considering becoming a certified arborist or are a certified arborist needing continuing education units (20 CEU’s approved by ISA) or simply interested in a closer look at the science and art of tree care, call or go online to Napa Valley Adult Education, call 253-3594 or visit

Bill Pramuk is a registered consulting arborist. Visit his website, email questions to or call him at 226-2884.

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