Calaveras Enterprise

Coalitions build to save Calaveras oaks

An empty, gated field filled with oak trees is a common scene in Calaveras County. As more of these fields yield to development, environmental groups and county officials are searching for ways to preserve oak woodlands.

“We know that there will be a 40 percent increase in homes in Calaveras over the next 20 years,” said Jerry Scott, with a local advocacy group. “More growth and more homes put more pressure on oak woodlands.”

Scott is with the newly formed Amador Calaveras Oak Conservancy Group, one of several organizations looking to rework the conservation element during the general plan update process.

“We want to work with all the stakeholders and not just ram regulations down people’s throats,” Scott said.

Calaveras County contains about 316,000 acres of oak woodlands, and is part of about 2.3 million acres in the San Joaquin region.

Oak conservation is a three-way tug-o-war among developers, environmentalists and the county. While the existing general plan has conservation and open space elements, the county-funded Mintier evaluation indicates the “scenic resources” sections are vague. The county does not have an oak conservation ordinance.

According to Community Development Agency Director Stephanie Moreno, she hoped an oak ordinance would have been in place by now.

“We do have something in the works,” she said.

Moreno said an intern was hired during the summer to do the initial work, but was trumped by the general plan update process on the department’s priority list.

While oak conservation language could be worked into the updated general plan, Moreno expects an oak preservation ordinance to be in place in the next few months.

In the meantime, Calaveras County’s agricultural commissioner is ready to present a recommended oak management plan to the Board of Supervisors.

“This is to ensure proper stewardship and maintenance of oaks,” Mary Mutz said, “But also to encourage farming and ranching.”

The Calaveras Voluntary Oak Woodland Management Plan is not a strict set of laws, but rather a focused game plan that would qualify for grant money. The plan is scheduled to reach the supervisors at a Jan. 23 study session.

According to program manager Marilyn Cundiff, with the state conservation board, about $19 million is available for counties for easement purchases, outreach and oak restoration. So far, 11 counties have adopted a plan and five are close to completion.

However, some counties have encountered problems with the requirement to get stakeholders to work together.

“Counties have stakeholders with varying interests, for the first time, coming together and trying to come up with a plan,” Cundiff said. “It’s an incentive to discuss differences.”

The state Oak Woodlands Conservation Program requires a county to designate a board to review grant applications, which usually falls on the Planning Department. Applicants can be non-government entities, such as landowners and nonprofit groups.

As Calaveras moves forward with an oak conservation plan, stakeholders are gearing up for work.

“Of course there is going to be growth. No one is against that,” said registered forester Tom Gaman. “A lot of areas are accessible and appropriate for growth. Other areas are less appropriate. With proper planning, we can achieve a level of sustainability if we act now.”

Gaman is with the nonprofit California Oak Foundation, which stated in a report that one-third of all oak woodlands in Madera, Amador and Calaveras counties combined may be developed before 2040.

Development projects that are subject to environmental impact reports often must mitigate destruction of oak woodlands as part of the larger California Environmental Quality Act regulations.

North Vista Plaza, a 171-home project in Valley Springs, is just one of several projects required to preserve a percentage of existing oak trees. While there are state regulations in place, a county is responsible for adopting specific oak ordinances.

Ken Churches, farm advisor for the University of California Agriculture extension, said the county’s oak woodlands are healthy overall.

“Our oaks, from a countywide standpoint, are in excellent shape,” Churches said. He said that some areas are facing more development than others.

Churches estimated about 316,000 acres in Calaveras contain oak woodlands, with a vast majority on private property. About 6,000 acres are targeted for development, he said.

Churches said black, blue and interior oaks have thrived in Calaveras because ranchers are “excellent stewards of the land.” Oak trees provide a rural aesthetic, but also food and shade for grazing cattle.

He estimated that 70 percent of the county is being used for agriculture purposes, but many of the larger ranches are being sold off to developers.

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