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‘Free Oakey’ is cry to save the black oak

An example of California black oaks dying or dead amid an encroaching circle of firs and cedars that rob them of light, food and water.
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You haven’t heard about them, but there are thousands of political prisoners in the Sierra Nevada. Hard to believe, but yes, it’s true. They languish behind wooden stockades and all face a life sentence. They suffer from lack of food, water, and adequate sunlight. Disease is rampant among them, and many die each day. Their political masters could release them if they chose. But this is unlikely – to do so would be to admit a humiliating mistake.

Who are these prisoners? And where are they being held? Drive into the mountains and you will find them scattered throughout the national forests and parks. Be sure to bring your camera so that you have evidence of the crime. Turn off the main road and look carefully for a ring of pole sized incense-cedar and white fir trees. Most likely, you will see something dark inside – a lonely old black oak wasting away in the center. It is a sad and unforgettable sight.

The cedar and fir stockade not only surrounds the old black oak, draining nutrients and water from its roots, but the trees also grow above it, depriving it of life-giving sunlight. You will see clearly the toll that imprisonment has taken on the poor black oak. Like thinning hair, a little clump of leaves will sit on top of the scarred and twisted trunk, trying to capture what little light comes straight down between the encircling trees.



There will be few, if any, acorns produced that could feed wildlife or start another family, and those that drop to the ground will have no room to grow.

A healthy forest retains its native species, resists insect and disease attacks, and can renew itself. The decline of the black oak is a warning that our forests are already unhealthy, and their condition is rapidly deteriorating.




How did the black oak come to be in this prison, and who put it there?

Historically, frequent gentle fires kept cedar and fir from growing tall enough to surround and overtop the black oak. Such fires did little damage to the old oaks and kept the forest open and healthy. Then came the early 20th century conservationists, who got our government to institute total fire suppression.

Few people noticed as the cedar and fir grew taller and gradually encircled the black oak. Today, as many as 88 percent of black oaks in the Sierra Nevada’s conifer forests may be seriously weakened or imprisoned by densely packed trees. Most of these sick old oaks will not survive unless they are released and the forest is restored to health.

You would think this problem could be easily solved. Why don’t we just cut the trees that imprison the old oaks? Then we can thin the surrounding forest to a density approximating that of the historic forest so they can flourish once more.

Sadly, we cannot do what common sense dictates. Rather than admit they are wrong, environmental activists refuse to allow the tree-thinning that would free the old oaks, and make our forests less susceptible to wildfire and disease. They don’t want anyone to thin trees, even if it means dooming the black oak. It is supremely ironic that while condemning the oldest black oaks to imprisonment and death, these same activists are pushing for the creation of a Black Oak Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada – because big oaks are becoming rare!

Thus, the black oak has become a political prisoner in the struggle over thinning our nation’s forests. Unless enough citizens rise up to correct this injustice, the California black oak will eventually disappear from conifer forests as surely as another state symbol, the California grizzly gear, disappeared.

If we can make an environmental cause of the California spotted owl or Marin bent grass, there’s no reason we can’t do the same with the magnificent black oak. The pitiful way in which these old oaks are being strangled by encircling trees certainly suggests the metaphor of a prison, and the rallying cry, “Free Oakey!”

It’s been done before. With enough concerned people to pass out buttons, placards, and banners and to hold demonstrations, we could get the attention of lawmakers. Let’s save these venerable symbols of environmental health.

Let’s “Free Oakey!”

Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D., is a professor of forest science at Texas A&M University and the author of “America’s Ancient Forests.” Formerly, he was a member of the California State Park and Recreation Commission under Governor Reagan and president of the Bay Area Chapter of the Sierra Club. Currently, he is on the advisory board of The Forest Foundation.


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