Bush's Pasture Park remains covered in downed branches Feb. 23 after an ice storm hit Salem on Feb. 12 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

For the past two weeks, trees felled by the ice storm in Salem have frustrated daily life by blocking sidewalks and closing parks.

But for two Willamette University professors, the windfall of downed trees provides a rare opportunity for research.

Karen Arabas, professor of environmental science, and David Craig, professor of biology, are seeking “cookies” - thin slices of fallen or felled Oregon white oak trees.

“We’ve both been really interested in the stories these old oak trees can tell,” Arabas said.

White oaks are the only North American oak species native to the West Coast and dominate native forests around the Salem area. Once abundant, oak habitat in the mid-Willamette Valley is now found on just 7% of its original area before European settlement, according to the Willamette Partnership, a conservation organization.

An Oregon white oak stand in Bush’s Pasture Park is thought to be hundreds of years old. Its preservation has been a major goal of Salem conservation organizations.

Arabas said the trees can provide a plethora of data about how trees have adapted to weather and climate and how to better care for an iconic species native to the region. Gathering that data without cutting down trees is challenging.

“It’s very hard to core trees to get the tree ring data that can tell us about climate and past history,” she said.

The two are teaming up on a research project to gather and analyze samples of Oregon white oaks and the stories that go with them as Salem residents clean up following the storm.

Craig is an ecologist whose work includes studying the white-breasted nuthatch, a bird which often makes its home in oaks. Arabas studies tree rings and the stories they tell about disturbances to forests.

Arabas hopes a collection of tree slices can help them better understand how the trees are adapting to climate change and other human-caused disturbances. She said watering around oaks may account for some of the damage to the trees in the recent storm, and the project could help provide better information about how to care for the trees.

“We suspect that irrigation causes a lot of root rot and may be why a lot of these oaks went down,” she said.

The team plans to gather data over the spring and will collect oak slices from Salem residents who can’t deliver them to Willamette’s campus. They’ll involve students in their classes and hope to begin publishing data in the fall, Arabas said.

Arabas said they also hope to collect stories about the trees from homeowners.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can collect the oral histories that go with these oaks,” she said.

How to participate

Citizen scientists can help with the effort by either cutting a “cookie” of the tree trunk or a branch, about one to three inches thick, and delivering it to Willamette's Olin Science Building, 180 Winter Street, or taking a photo with a measuring tape for scale and emailing it to the project with location and other information to [email protected]

More information is included in the flyers below.

Willamette University is collecting white oak tree "cookies" and information as Salem cleans up following an ice storm. (Courtesy/Willamette University)

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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