Willamette students seek to regenerate native oaks in the Salem area

Grace Shiffrin and Angie Wang, co-leaders of Willamette University’s Stewarding Our Oregon Oaks project, with acorns (Helen Caswell/Special to Salem Reporter)

A passionate group of Willamette University students is collecting Oregon white oak acorns from across Salem – and they need your help.

 Their aim is to promote and preserve the important regional species. 

“The Oregon white oak not only holds a vast amount of ecological importance,” said Angie Wang, one of the student leaders for the Stewarding Our Oregon Oaks project, “but it also holds vast cultural significance as well.”

The group is asking Salem people with white oaks on their property to contact them, so they can collect, document and plant a wide variety of acorns for the future.  

Only 5% of the native oaks that populated the Willamette Valley 100 years ago remain, said Sarah Menke, social outreach coordinator for the project.

“The valley used to be a wide, fertile savannah, full of this keystone species, but those trees have mostly been lost, primarily to wineries and urban development,” Menke said.

The trees provide habitat or are essential to more than 300 native species, including camas, a historical food culturally significant to the Kalapuya people. 

Earlier this year, Willamette environmental science and biology students created a grant-funded project to highlight and address the issue. It began when Wang sat in a class led by David Craig, professor of biology, who has since become the faculty advisor for the project. 

“After the ice storm hit, Professor Craig talked about how many legacy oaks fell,” Wang said.” I remembered someone who grew oak trees from acorns during high school, and immediately I knew that I wanted to write a grant about collecting acorns from these Oregon oak trees, and growing a new generation.” to help restore the Willamette Valley oak savanna. 

After Wang shared the idea with Craig, the two decided to write a grant. They reached out to other students for help, and the proposal was produced. 

They successfully applied for funding from the university’s Community Action Fund for Equity and Sustainability. The money comes from an optional student fee of $25 per semester to pay for projects working on sustainability, equity and social justice.  

Leila Fischer, a Willamette University environment sciences major, finds acorns in a Salem yard (Helen Caswell/Special to Salem Reporter)

Now, teams of students are going to private Salem properties to gather acorns. 

The resulting acorns will be catalogued and planted in campus greenhouses until they are big enough saplings to place in new locations. Among those locations is a 300-acre Willamette University woodland in the Eola Hills, and potentially includes Bush’s Pasture Park where the little trees might replace white oaks lost in the 2021 ice storm. 

After planting, each sapling will wear a coded tag so people can look up trees on the project website and report damage, or other concerns. 

“For this fall season, we plan to collect acorns until Thanksgiving, and then resume collections next year,” Wang said.

The group is hoping to go to as many different collection sites as possible, “to promote extra biodiversity from the Salem population rather than us collecting everything from just one tree,” Menke said.

There is no projected final year for the process to end, said Grace Shiffrin, co-leader of the project. “We plan to collect acorns every year, and since there is no end date to our project, we hope to have future Willamette students collecting acorns after we graduate, and for years after,” she said.

The Stewarding Our Oregon Oaks project participants said that their work explores the connection between the historical oak savanna and the lasting impacts colonial settlement has had on Salem biodiversity. 

“The giant trees, especially those with the big side branches, are the direct living legacies of the Kalapuya community who have lived here for time immemorial,” Craig told the South Central Association of Neighbors earlier this year. “When we look at the growth rings in the largest old oak, we can connect with families and culture local to this place for 300 years or more.”  

Planting new young Oregon oaks, as they are doing, the group believes, is a symbolic act of reconciliation that recognizes the settler-colonist history of white people damaging the ecosystem and disrupting the traditional patterns of land management and cultural life of the Santiam Kalapuya.

Craig is also excited about what the project’s new oak canopy means for the Willamette Valley of the future. The species is wonderfully adapted to the projected warmer, dryer weather of the future, and he believes this will benefit all Salem people and the region’s climate. 

Besides, Craig said, “although the Oregon oaks start as slow growers, they are amazing in how much beauty, shade, stormwater service and wildlife habitat they can provide.”

It all starts with students getting down on the ground to gather the choicest, healthiest acorns.

“Since I had the original idea for the project,” Wang said, “I have a very, very strong attachment to it. I feel this project hits so many critical topics and has the potential to educate many people on those topics, such as the biological and cultural significance of the Oregon White Oak. I am so excited to continue working on this project and learn and understand more about this fascinating tree species and its significance.”

More information is available from the project’s Instagram page, @wugrowingoaks, or its website: https://growing-oaks.wixsite.com/my-site-4. You can also contact the website about your own oak acorns.

Writer Helen Caswell can be reached at [email protected].

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Helen Caswell is a freelance writer in Salem and can be reached at [email protected].