Volunteers undertake massive acorn-planting project

By Isabel Ashley

On the morning of Nov. 16, nine volunteers met with Doug McCutchen, Land Bank preserve steward, at the end of Lawson Road – a long, winding gravel path near Mt. Grant preserve. Among these volunteers were career foresters, Ph.D. holders and educators, land trust board members and more. Despite their varied backgrounds, they were all united and eager to accomplish the same mission: to plant acorns from Garry oaks, the only oak tree native to Washington.

Habitat restoration and planting of Garry oak, or Quercus garryana, on the islands is nothing new – according to McCutchen, the Land Bank has done Garry oak restoration on Cady Mountain for the last 20 years. However, thanks to a US Forest Service Landscape Scale Restoration grant that was secured by the Department of Natural Resources in 2021, Garry oak habitat restoration has expanded to cover 45 acres across four sites presided by local, state and non-profit organizations. The Land Bank is just one of the organizations involved, working alongside the Department of Natural Resources, the Island Conservation Corps, Rainshadow Consulting and the Samish Indian Nation Department of Natural Resources to reduce catastrophic fire risk and propagate biodiverse understory plants and wildlife habitat.

The acorn-planting project is supplemental and complementary to the grant-funded program, ultimately working towards the same goal. The removal of indigenous land management practices like burning, weeding and planting, which intentionally promoted Garry oak habitats, has diminished the overall population of these trees.

“Oaks are much happier in open land. They can’t compete with douglas fir trees,” explained Patrick Kirby, one of the volunteers who participated in acorn planting. “And so as the native burning has stopped and the grazing has stopped, all of the island has grown up as douglas fir trees, and you have these thick forests that could be a forest fire if it got going.”

The increased risk of forest fires is one of the many challenges brought upon by climate change. According to McCutchen, forested areas in the San Juans are expected to contract. Extended dry periods and warmer temperatures will increase stress among trees and understory species, and as they lose vigor and become more susceptible to pathogens, these forests will increase the amount of dead fuel for catastrophic wildfires. Oaks, however, have evolved to thrive in warmer and drier climates, offering an opportunity for a more resilient and climate-adapted landscape in coming weather patterns. Additionally, the cultural importance of Garry oaks and associated understory plants in these ecosystems as a food and medicinal crops for Coast Salish people on the island creates a social responsibility to protect them.

“Climate change is happening much more rapidly than systems can adapt, so the idea for this project was really to get acorns planted and increase the distribution of oaks across the island; we want to create these pockets of resiliency that can help move us forward socially, culturally and ecologically into a warming climate,” said McCutchen.

Another benefit of Garry oak habitats is increased biodiversity. McCutchen estimates that the associated habitats can support hundreds of different invertebrates, numerous species of fungi and more than 100 bird species. Garry oaks can also grow in a variety of conditions, from a crack in a rock to wetlands. However, oak trees take a long time to grow. It takes several years to establish roots and another 20 to 50 years before it can produce acorns, meaning acorns planted today will finally be bearing acorns after 2050. This is why there is a large push to plant the trees now.

Besides the urgency to initiate tree growth currently, there is another reason why this supplemental acorn planting project is taking place. Trees produced a hyper abundance of acorns this year through the entire range of Garry oaks starting from northern California up to British Columbia. This abundance is called a mast event, referring to the mast or meaty tree fruits like acorns and tree nuts, and it occurs every few years. However, McCutchen learned from Kevin Brown, a Vancouver Island researcher who tracks acorn abundance, that this year’s mast event is by far one of the most abundant in recent decades: the next closest on record was in 2004. Volunteers took advantage of this opportunity and gathered acorns from a variety of public and private property, including from the oldest known living Garry oak tree in the world – estimated 500 years old – located on Cady Mountain.

“My initial goal was to collect and distribute around 600 acorns, but thanks to the leadership of volunteer Jane Wentworth, this amazing community collected about 8,000 acorns that are getting planted,” said McCutchen.

Because the acorns germinate quickly, there is a short window for planting: volunteers began collecting and planting the acorns in early October and will have to finish by mid-December. The Lawson Road property is just one of 20 sites; although most volunteers have planted acorns on Land Bank preserves as it offers continuity of management in the long term, others have planted on private property as well, and they keep track of the locations and number of acorns planted via a shared spreadsheet. So far, they have planted acorns at the Beaverton Marsh Preserve, Cady Mountain, False Bay Creek and Zylstra Lake Preserve, with an estimated 3,000 planted acorns.

The volunteers who gathered on Lawson Road began the morning with a brief introduction from McCutchen on the locations where they would be working before grabbing their bins of acorns and fluorescent flags and heading out to their first spot. The places they were targeting were typically large, open areas that were south-facing for maximum sunlight. The volunteers began planting the acorns in clusters of five acorns per labeled flag, with the goal of planting as many acorns as possible without overwhelming the area.

“The goal is to plant one hundred acorns and hope that five survive,” said Elliot Birch, volunteer, as he explained the planting strategy to new helpers. A few minutes later, he mentioned that they should still be thoughtful when planting.

“When you plant a seed, you need to give it good intention, that you really want it to grow, because it could really make a difference,” said Birch.

Sharon Massey, volunteer, is a retired Spring Street school teacher who used to take her students to different areas on the island to do similar projects. She remarked how thankful she was for the opportunity to engage in restoration work again.

“To see these cool areas on the island, it just makes you want to be a land steward,” said Massey. “That was my whole premise with taking students outside: take them outside and get them to love where they live, because if you love where you live, you’re gonna take care of it.”

After dropping one of her acorns into a small hole she made, Massey covered and patted the soil down as she gave a final boost of encouragement to the seed inside: “Grow strong, little acorn!”