Nonprofit restores Sonoma County’s natural habitat with oak tree seedlings

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When Natalie Portis first stepped onto her property in Sonoma nearly 20 years ago, she was immediately enchanted by the verdant natural landscape and the stately oak trees.

Portis’ wooded oasis was among the thousands of acres of forests and oak-studded landscapes that burned in the October 2017 Nuns fire, which claimed her home and an estimated 700 trees on her 10-acre Castle Road property.

“It still feels surreal,” Portis, 59, said. “It was devastating to go back there and see the singed trees. I just remember being there and feeling the grief and toll of such loss.”

She’s rebuilding her home and plans to move in this summer. It’s been a “painful” process, but a bright spot came last month as she planted 21 oak tree seedlings sprouted from acorns collected by local volunteers in the weeks after the devastating wildfires two years ago in Sonoma County.

“It was very playful and very sweet, and it put a huge smile on my face,” she said of planting the young coast live oaks on her property with help from members of the California Native Plant Society. “I feel like I’m going to get back home.”

Oak trees have long defined the bucolic landscapes of Sonoma County and played a critical role in shaping its natural habitat. Recognizing the need to preserve and proliferate the native species after the fires, the California Native Plant Society and its local Milo Baker chapter — named after the noted Santa Rosa botanist — quickly launched efforts in 2017 to harvest acorns from areas near burn zones in the county and surrounding communities.

“Oaks are really the powerhouses of our ecosystem here in California when it comes to native plants,” said Liv O’Keeffe, senior director of communication and engagement for the environmental nonprofit society. “A single oak can literally support hundreds of insects, pollinators, birds, critters and other plant species. Having those oaks in place keeps an ecosystem intact.”

Thousands of acorns were collected by Sonoma County naturalists and volunteers, while thousands more were mailed to the Sacramento headquarters of the California Native Plant Society. The acorns were treated to kill disease, entered into a database to track their species and origin and brought to nurseries in Santa Rosa and San Diego, where they’ve since sprouted into seedlings that are ready to be planted this winter.

Seedlings are available from the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, which has worked with other local organizations to distribute about 700 oak tree sprouts to landowners across the county, said Brent Reed, the foundation’s ecological program manager.

The California Native Plant Society also has grown about 4,000 oak seedlings from Sonoma County, and plans to bring the plants from San Diego to Sonoma County in January or February to be picked up by those who have signed up in advance for them, the society’s assistant rare plant botanist Seth Kauppinen said.

As homeowners in Sonoma County move through the process of rebuilding after the fires, many are seeking to replace other species of trees with oaks, said Wendy Trowbridge, the foundation’s director of restoration and conservation science programs. Though it will take years for them to grow into adult trees, replanting is an important step, said Trowbridge, whose Mark West home burned in the fire.

“Psychologically, there’s something about planting a tree. It’s about hope for the future,” she said. “It’s hard to go back to your property that has been burned out and doesn’t look the way you remembered it. My neighborhood used to be a forest and now it’s more of a grassland. ... Planting trees is a way for people to move forward.”

The California Native Plant Society’s has expanded its initial effort focused on the North Bay to a statewide effort dubbed “Re-Oak California” in a push to collect acorns and plant seedlings, Kauppinen said. It’s an effort to bolster the overall habitat of native oaks, which are threated by various perils, like development and sudden oak death, a disease that has devastating effects on certain species of oaks, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

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