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April Andujar will be planting oak trees near the former Elk Creek Dam as part of a long-term effort to restore the area's oak savanna. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Children of the acorn

TRAIL — April Andujar is looking back for the future of the shores along Elk Creek, and she has $60 worth of oak seedlings to make it happen.

Those 60 little oaks will be scattered across five acres Saturday to see what sticks.

"It's kind of like nature," says Andujar, a natural resource specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "You throw out a whole bunch and see what survives."

If Andujar's low-rent plan works out, those who walk this reclaimed pasture 100 years from now will see what it looked like 200 years ago.

Andujar is in the early stages of a decidedly different type of Corps reclamation project by attempting to restore long-gone oak savannas on parts of the agency's property near Trail that was once tapped to be the bottom of Elk Creek Lake.

This creekside piece of loam was a thriving oak savanna before homesteaders cleared most of the trees to make room for cows. The cows went away in the 1970s to make room for the reservoir, which never materialized.

So now these lowlands have the chance to become the one thing no one thought they'd ever be — the way they were.

Instead of planting older trees that would need years of babying before they took hold, Andujar's volunteers Saturday will plant seedlings in a long-range plan they hope will one day pock these fields with 100-year-old oaks with no heavy lifting required.

"It's definitely not a short-term project," Andujar says. "We want to start small, then observe and see what's successful, but this will be the long-term strategy.

"It's been my plan all along to restore these lands to what they're supposed to be — oak savannas," she says.

The oak savannas of pre-settlement time stretched in low-elevation lands from Northern California to British Columbia, and they were well adapted to low-intensity fires. But more than 90 percent of them are gone now, victims of clearing for development of farms, ranches and housing developments.

The Rogue Valley remains one of oak savannas' stronger niches, with clusters of them around Agate Lake and significant stands in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument and along the Table Rocks.

The oaks are the linchpin in these habitats that are home to everything from western gray squirrels and Lewis' woodpeckers to quail and plants such as the white fairypoppy.

Their sloughed acorns are the fall diet staples of black-tailed deer and Roosevelt elk. Also, these hardwoods are susceptible to losing some of their large, gnarled branches, thereby creating nesting cavities for everything from rare great gray owls to even more rare Pacific fishers.

"Oaks are trees that have a lot of value to a lot of species," says Steve Niemela, a wildlife biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "But oaks across the West are in a lot of trouble, especially in Oregon."

Efforts are underway to protect the older, larger "legacy" oaks along the Table Rocks by clearing competing trees and brush with chainsaws and prescribed fire.

As for the Corps' Elk Creek holdings, any oaks that survived reservoir construction were destined to be 100 feet under water.

The federal government wrote off oaks and other denizens of this planned "inundation zone" in 1962 when Congress authorized the Corps to build Elk Creek Dam as part of its three-dam Rogue Basin project.

Lost Creek Dam was finished in 1977, and Applegate Dam was finished three years later.

The Corps didn't begin building Elk Creek Dam until 1986, but environmental lawsuits blocked construction in 1988. Ensuing environmental studies showed the cumulative effects of Lost Creek and Elk Creek dam operations would unduly warm the main-stem Rogue and damage wild fish populations, particularly wild spring chinook salmon.

Eventually, in 2008, the partially built dam was notched so Elk Creek could flow unimpeded and open the upper watershed to wild salmon and steelhead spawning.

Since then, the Corps has focused land rehab on the creek channel and wild fish habitat while opening much of the area to recreation, ranging from mountain biking and birdwatching to big-game hunting.

But little has been done to the former homesteads so ignored over the dam saga that they became fields of nonnative starthistle and medusa's head.

Andujar launched her project last year by using herbicides to rid the weeds, then plant native grasses in their place. That set the stage for Saturday's planting and its walk-away-and-watch approach.

That's decidedly different than the five older oaks planted earlier this year at parking lots at both ends of the recreation area's main trail.

"We had to water them two or three times a week this summer to keep them alive," says Andujar, strolling through a field with little orange flags that will be replaced with oak seedlings. "For places like this, it would really be hard to find the manpower to water them all."

The fields will be marked with signs noting them as restoration sites. The signs could rot out before the surviving oaks — Andujar hopes at least half will survive — drop their first acorns. 

"It will take a long time for them to come into acorn production for deer and elk," Niemela says. "Actually, deer and elk might like them a lot right now."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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