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Valley Oak

This is a California Valley Oak tree.

An effort to plant oak acorns by the thousands is receiving a boost from Napa County in the wake of the tree-devastating October 2017 wildfires.

The Napa County Resource Conservation District (RCD) is already amid its multi-year “Re-oaking the Valley” project that seeks to plant 5,000 acorns. Now the district and county want to up the oak-planting ante, though by how much remains to be seen.

On Tuesday, the Napa County Board of Supervisors modified the joint powers agreement the county has with the district. That allows $50,000 of money already budgeted to be used for the oak program.

The session included plenty of oak accolades.

“They truly are an iconic species for California and especially for Napa County, where a third of our lands are covered with oak woodlands,” said Frances Knapczyk, interim executive director of the RCD.

Oaks do such things as sequester carbon, provide habitat and food to thousands of species—including over 300 kinds of fungus—provide shade in the summer for waterways and soil and filter out air and water pollution, she said.

Measure C, a June 5 ballot measure that would restrict the cutting of oak woodlands in the watershed for new vineyards, is highly controversial. However, the idea of planting more oaks is not.

Supervisors Ryan Gregory, Alfredo Pedroza and Belia Ramos oppose Measure C and Supervisors Diane Dillon and Brad Wagenknecht are neutral. All voted to make the oak planting money available.

Wine industry groups also oppose Measure C. But Michelle Benvenuto of Winegrowers of Napa County told supervisors the industry supports the RCD’s oak-planting efforts and reached out to the district after the fires about tree-planting locations.

Ramos first proposed the county’s tree-planting involvement at the March 20 supervisors meeting. She said a University of California, Davis study found the October wildfires burned several million trees. The county Public Works Department alone is removing several hundred dead trees from road right-of-ways.

“Perhaps we can make a small dent here in trying to repopulate some of the hillsides,” Ramos said, with her request leading to Tuesday’s oak discussion.

Napa County estimates the Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs fires burnt more than 30,000 acres of oak woodlands. How many oaks were killed by the wildfires is unknown. However, a county report noted that even a 2.5 percent mortality rate would mean the loss of about 800 acres.

The county doesn’t have to invent a tree-planting program. It can tap into the RCD’s “Re-oaking the Valley” program that has already planted acorns in places such as Alston Park in an effort to better approximate Napa Valley’s historic landscape.

RCD started the program a few years ago after receiving such funding as a $90,000 Coastal Conservancy grant. Knapczyk on Tuesday told supervisors the Napa Valley floor over 250 years has lost 95 percent of its valley oaks to development, both of agriculture and cities.

Pedroza wanted that statistic put into context. He had county Supervising Planner Brian Bordona talk about steps the county takes to protect oak woodlands, such as having stream setbacks and requiring erosion control plans for hillside vineyard development.

Knapczyk clarified that the 95-percent figure pertains only to one type of Napa County’s 10 oak species. A county report said the county has 167,000 acres of oak woodlands, much of it in the watershed.

Valley oaks have seen losses throughout the state because they grow on valley floors where development occurs, Knapczyk said. Napa County has preserved a relatively high proportion of its valley oaks, she added.

A 2010 county study said California’s vanishing valley oaks make up only 1 percent of the state’s oak population, but almost 6 percent of Napa County’s.

Gregory put in a word for conifers. His 2nd supervisorial district includes Mount Veeder, which lost hundreds of redwoods, Douglas firs and other trees to Nuns Fire.

“Conifers are probably a little more complicated, but I think there are a lot of conifer areas that need to be addressed also,” he said.

Knapczyk said the RCD is looking at how to weave conifers in with its planting program.

The stepped-up oak-planting blitz won’t be done haphazardly. The program includes creating a strategic plan on where to best plant oaks. Knapczyk said the county money could help pay the $20,000 to $30,000 cost for the plan.

RCD intends to continue having both school and public acorn-planting events, as well as working with private landowners who might want to plant acorns on their own. Knapczyk said the district will collect acorns for planting this fall.

Other partners in what is now being called Re-oak North Bay include the California Native Plant Society, Friends of the Napa River, Sonoma Resource Conservation District and San Francisco Estuary Institute.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.