Protecting oak trees: Lessons learned from Santa Barbara County
Jim Poett looked out over a thousand acres of oak woodlands at his Lompoc ranch on a hot Tuesday afternoon.
Lowing cows munched on dry, crunchy hay in the clearing where he stood. While some approached Poett’s truck in search of food, others took shelter from the sun under the oaks, their green canopies providing shade that would otherwise come from man-made shelters.
“The value of oak trees,” Poett said, smiling.
Nearly 20 years ago, Poett, whose 13,000-acre cattle ranch is one of the largest in Santa Barbara County, became involved in an effort to preserve the future of such oak woodlands.
A large winery, Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens, had cut down more than 800 oak trees near Los Alamos in the late 1990s to make room for a vineyard. The massive tree removal sparked outrage that garnered national media coverage.
In 1997, the issue landed in front of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, which is where Poett entered the picture. He and others from the agricultural community joined with environmentalists in a seven-year process to negotiate oak tree protections to prevent such destruction of an iconic part of California’s landscape.
Supervisors approved the fruit of the group’s labors in 2003. Now, more than a decade later, Poett and environmentalist Brian Trautwein said the process of creating an oak protection program provided valuable insights, even if some, such as Santa Maria’s Premier Coastal Vineyard manager Kevin Merrill, think the regulations aren’t necessary.
“I think it drove the point home that oaks are something to be protected,” Trautwein said.
Santa Barbara County’s experience could be instructive as the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors revisits an urgency oak protection ordinance on Aug. 16. The ordinance was passed July 15, after Justin Vineyards and Winery bulldozed thousands of oaks in May to make room for more grapes.
It wasn’t the first time oaks had been clear-cut by Justin, a brand owned by the multinational Wonderful Co. In 2011, the company took out 15,000 oaks at another North County property for similar reasons.
Supervisors will consider the same issue Santa Barbara County took up 20 years ago: how to best protect oaks while also protecting the agricultural community’s property rights.
Oak protection program
The working group appointed by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors met many times — 16 times in 14 months in 1998 and 1999, and again from 2002 to 2003 — to negotiate an oak protection program that everyone could live with.
With direction from the Board of Supervisors, the group eventually developed a program that combined voluntary oak regeneration with regulations governing removals. Farmers and ranchers were given more leeway than those wanting to remove trees for non-agricultural purposes. Trees planted voluntarily were exempted from those taken into account when determining removal thresholds.
The regulations cover two categories of trees: evergreen live oaks and deciduous oaks, which include the blue and valley varieties. Deciduous oaks, which Trautwein said are more rare throughout the county, are subject to more stringent protections than live oaks.
Agricultural landowners are allowed to remove a certain number of deciduous oaks within a 30-year period before different tiers of protections kick in, which include developing a management plan with the county and acquiring a permit. Landowners can take out a specific amount of trees, depending on how big their property is and how many trees they have.
For example, landowners with large properties — 899 acres or more — who remove more than 19 trees must plant 15 deciduous oaks to replace each oak removed.
No permits are required to remove live oaks, although a management plan is needed if landowners remove more than 15 percent of their total canopy during a 30-year period. When such a plan is required, landowners must plant 10 oaks for every live oak removed.
The tree protections are part of the county’s grading ordinance, but the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office oversees tree management. To date, no removals have required a management plan or permit, Commissioner Cathy Fisher said.
According to a status report the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office presented before the Board of Supervisors in October 2015, “Although some complaints of oak tree removals have been received and investigated, none were found to be in violation of the ordinances.”
Glenn Russell, the county’s Planning and Development director, said the protections are managed on a complaint basis, which means it’s difficult to say whether the lack of management plans and permits are due to less tree-cutting or landowners flouting the rules.
Most of the county’s tree removals are dealt with during the process of receiving permits for other types of projects, Russell said.
“You can cut down a lot of trees without triggering the need for a management plan,” he said.
Fisher said the county’s greatest oak tree victories have stemmed from public outreach and oak regeneration programs. The Agricultural Commission in 2010 contracted with the county Farm Bureau to create an oak tree education coordinator. The program encourages residents to protect native trees and works with schools and agriculture groups to promote oak tree planting.
A 2015 status report said an average of 5,000 acorns have been planted each year, and about 100 property owners have received seedlings.
Farmers and ranchers weigh in
Poett, the Lompoc rancher, and Merrill, the Santa Maria vineyard manager, said their operations haven’t been impacted by the regulations. Neither said they’ve needed to remove trees, aside from cutting limbs to make way for machinery or taking out oaks that are diseased or have died.
Merrill manages 800 rolling acres, 350 of which are lined with green rows of grapes, which he said were planted around 1999 and are drip-irrigated. Some rows swerve around oak trees, which Merrill said “add character” to the property.
“If all those trees were gone, it wouldn’t look as good,” he said.
Although Merrill, a former Farm Bureau president and current board member, maintains oaks and recognizes their value, he said he thinks the regulations were a “knee-jerk reaction” to the Kendall-Jackson removal. The 10-to-1 live oak replanting ratio is too much, he said.
“I think farmers, in general, do the right thing,” Merrill said.
Even so, Merrill was proud to show off a group of oak saplings he’d planted on a hill overlooking some of the grapes. He said he’s planted a couple hundred oaks on the property voluntarily as a “legacy” for the land and is excited about the Farm Bureau’s tree-planting program.
Merrill and Poett both said drought and water shortages have become more of an issue during the years since the ordinance was passed. Merrill also said landowners aren’t planting vineyards in Santa Barbara County like they were back in the late ’90s, which means fewer farmers are interested in removing oaks.
Poett, a sixth-generation farmer who runs about 350 head of cattle on Rancho San Julian, said he and the others who worked on the protections, which were initially more restrictive, “decided to make something that was probably more workable.” But he said he could see how farmers and ranchers with lots of deciduous oaks might take issue with the regulations.
Overall, the process of creating the regulations provided “recognition of the significance” of oaks, he said. It also allowed the agricultural community and environmentalists to create enduring relationships.
“There’s a natural sympathy between the objectives of the two groups,” he said.
Trautwein, the environmental analyst who works for the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, said the only part of the ordinance he’d like to see fixed is the monitoring aspect.
Because most properties aren’t visible from the road, aerial photos are the only way to make sure the protections are working, he said. At the 2015 status update, Trautwein suggested to supervisors that Google Earth, which periodically photographs neighborhoods and landscapes for the company’s mapping program, could also be a potential solution.
The protection program was also supposed to be reviewed every five years, but the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office missed its first review. Commissioner Fisher attributed this oversight to a change in leadership that occurred around the time the first update was due. The 2015 update ended up covering a decade of material, she said.
Trautwein agreed most farmers are responsible and conserve oaks, but he said it’s important to maintain a “regulatory backstop,” in case properties are sold to landowners who might not share such philosophies.
Even if the oak protections aren’t as effective as Trautwein and other environmentalists hoped they would be, he said, the process of drafting regulations was worthwhile, “just for the education.”
“People learned that, ‘Hey, oak trees are an important resource,’ ” he said.
Lessons for SLO County
Trautwein, Merrill and Poett all had takeaways from their experiences that San Luis Obispo County stakeholders could apply to their situation.
Merrill said to “proceed with caution,” and encouraged the county to work with groups like the University of California Cooperative Extension, which could provide perspective. “What you have to be careful of ... is you don’t go too far in the other direction,” Merrill said.
Poett said conservationists and the agricultural community should come together in support of their common interests.
“I think there needs to be more communication between agriculture and the environment,” he said.
Trautwein said an “equally weighted” working group, like the one developed almost 20 years ago, would be effective. Even so, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with such an issue, he said.
“I just think it has to be tailored for each community,” Trautwein said.