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It's not easy 

Restoring oak woodlands is a true challenge

The recent clearing and destruction of a large acreage of oak woodlands west of Paso Robles by The Wonderful Company and Justin Vineyards is a truly tragic event for San Luis Obispo County. It has shown how one acrimonious player can ruin things for everyone else and lead us down the path where many would rather not go. Something that locals would not have done was perpetrated with impunity by an out-of-the-area company, and now the community is left to pick up the pieces.

The California Native Plant Society is dedicated to the preservation and enhancement of the state’s marvelous flora and habitats, and events like the recent one are a sobering reminder that some haven’t heard our message. 

The offer by The Wonderful Company to donate the land where this destruction happened is welcome, but it is far from being the whole story. The same is true for the company’s claim that it will plant 5,000 trees somewhere in the area. Restoration is much, much more than simply sticking some trees in the ground; we are talking about trying to restore an ecosystem that has been destroyed, not just replacing downed trees with others of unknown origin.

True restoration of the site will take as long as 20 or 25 years, and will require years of study, planting, and tending for the new plantings; weeding; combating erosion, continued drought, and attacks by deer, rodents, and insects; and a host of other challenges, some which, perhaps, we have not even thought about. Here is a brief outline of what needs to be studied, thought about, and done:

1. The site needs to be studied, observed for any signs of recovering vegetation and evidence of what was there before; this is to restore the thriving ecosystem that it was, with its hundreds of plant and animal species, not just plant some trees.

2. Check nearby areas for use as reference sites to help make the determinations above.

3. Restore roads and other graded areas back to their natural contours to make them hydrologically “invisible”—that is, the graded areas will not intercept and channel runoff and lead to gully formation.

4. Design a planting palette and layout, including trees and shrubs native to the site or nearby areas. 

5. Determine and begin to grow replacement trees and shrubs, after establishing an area from which they can be gathered. Oak trees from the Bay Area, for example, may not grow well in our drier climate. Also, at what stage should they be: acorns, seedlings, or saplings? One can see that there is a lot of work to do before any significant planting begins; it might be several years. Once the planting palette has begun to be installed, long-term activities need to be undertaken on a regular schedule.

6. Provide necessary watering, weeding, and protection of the planted specimens from deer, rodents, and insects until they are self-sufficient, which will likely take 10 to 15 years.

7. Replace plants that have died or been otherwise damaged on an ongoing and as-needed basis.

8. Keep doing all these things until the ecological functions of the site have been restored. This may take as long as 25 years. Restoring ecological functions means having the site perform as it did before it was destroyed—providing food, cover, and nesting sites for birds and other animals, and providing layers of leaves, twigs, and other forest litter that provide cover and adds nutrients to the soil.

From this outline, you can see that one does not simply plant a bunch of trees and walk away. The effort will require many years and a great commitment of money to make happen.

Losing the trust and respect of the community is a major problem and is a very difficult thing to restore. The Wonderful Company and Justin Vineyards now have that problem. Restoring that trust is almost as hard as restoring an ecosystem. We call upon The Wonderful Company to live up to its name and claims of stewardship, and commit to funding this effort for the next 20 years, at least. Then perhaps something good can come out of this tragedy in the end.

Bill Waycott and Neil Havlik are members of the San Luis Obispo chapter of the California Native Plant Society. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or send a letter to the editor at letters@newtimesslo.com.

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