Over the Hill

Here’s a novel way to protect our oak woodlands

Oak trees shortly after sunrise on the Spanish Oaks Ranch next to Highway 101.
Oak trees shortly after sunrise on the Spanish Oaks Ranch next to Highway 101. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

We North County people seemed almost adjusted to having vineyards as our rural neighbors. Vineyards have replaced the former dry-land grain fields. But now the vineyards are invading North County oak woodlands. That worries me.

The official name of my city is El Paso de Robles, or “The Pass of Oaks.” I don’t want it to become El Paso de Zinfandel.

I read in The Tribune that Justin Vineyards has cut down thousands of oak trees west of Paso Robles. The oaks were removed to make room for new vineyards.

I first learned about the Justin Vineyards’ oak tree massacres last month when I read that two local agencies issued stop-work orders. One told the vineyard company to stop removing oaks from land on Sleepy Farm Road west of Paso Robles. The other ordered it to stop grading for a 20 acre-foot irrigation pond. The tree-cutting was reported by neighbors and an airplane pilot.

But that wasn’t Justin Vineyards’ first mass cutting of oak trees. On Tuesday, The Tribune reported the vineyard company removed 15,000 oak trees in 2011 from 100 acres west of Paso at 11680 Adelaida Road.

Our county Board of Supervisors plans to hold a special meeting at 9 a.m. Friday to adopt emergency regulations to protect oak trees and to govern irrigation ponds.

There are a few different varieties of oaks around here, and most are handsome. I like seeing them on the surrounding hills. But I’m not sure that’s enough reason to prevent landowners from cutting them down or to penalize the owners for removing them.

Let’s say you own some property that is graced by the presence of a large grove of oaks. They are majestic but don’t make you any money. Should you be able to turn them into firewood and sell it, and then replace them with a Christmas tree farm?

Of course, everyone might hate you and refuse to buy your Christmas trees or firewood. And that’s a problem Justin Vineyards is now facing. It’s a public relations problem, which the company tries to deal with by apologizing humbly, blaming lack of information and announcing plans to plant 5,000 oak trees somewhere.

Oh, I suppose the county can claim it has the right and obligation to regulate oak tree cutting. It can cite environmental and cultural reasons. But can those reasons really outweigh a landowner’s rights?

Maybe instead of penalizing landowners, the county should reward them if they preserve attractive natural features like oak groves. A small tax reduction would be a nice reward. It wouldn’t have to equal the oak grove’s entire taxes. After all, you’d still get to use the property for hikes or hunting or whatever.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.