Why the Oregon Oak?
The Oregon Oak (Quercus garryana) is an essential part of the Willamette Valley. Not only does this tree species have vast ecological benefits, but they are also deeply rooted in the cultural significance of indigenous tribes that once were the primary stewards of the land. Many communities in the Willamette Valley have grown to love these oaks and have created personal ties to them. Below, each one of these essential aspects of the Oregon White Oak will be explored.
Oregon Oaks are an essential part of the Willamette Valley ecosystem as they provide habitat for over three hundred native species. The fallen leaves of the oak protect arthropods and amphibians, the degraded leaves fertilize the soil and promote fungus and plant growth, the acorns provide nutrients for many mammals and bird species. The Oak savannas, woodlands, and prairies that were once expansive have degraded to three percent of what they once were. Throughout the years, the increasing population growth combined with less space for natural habitats and the intensification of agriculture, gives rise to the decline of the Oregon Oaks. Additionally, there are no regulatory or protection measures for these oaks, which leads to numerous other threats including conversion to vineyards, farmland, Douglas fir forests, and grazing. It seems that there are more profitable ideas than conserving the Oregon Oaks. Due to these severe losses, the environment in which the Willamette Valley is celebrated is struggling. All is not lost as concerned citizens of the Willamette Valley are beginning to take action to protect the Oregon Oaks. To protect the legacy of these beautiful trees, it is required that more citizens take a stand to protect and promote the Oregon Oaks.
In 2004 Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her Green Belt Movement which promotes environmental conservation; builds climate resilience and empowers communities, especially women and girls; to foster democratic space and sustainable livelihoods across Africa. In its citation, the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted Professor Maathai’s contribution to “sustainable development, democracy, and peace.” In 2005 Maathai led the planting of an Oregon Oak at Willamette University as part of their visit as a Graduation Commencement speaker. The ceremonial party also included Cheryle Kennedy ( National Indian Health Activist, Chair of the Grand Ronde) and Wilma Mankiller (American Cherokee activist, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation). The planting of an Oregon Oak acknowledged the time immemorial and living legacy of the Indigenous community with the land that our campus occupies. Planting young Oregon Oaks is a symbolic act of reconciliation that recognizes the settler-colonists history of White people damaging the ecosystem and disrupting the traditional patterns of land management and cultural life of the Santiam Kalapuya.
In communities where the oaks used to thrive, many members of the community have spoken about how they have personal ties to them. Many families speak about how they have grown up with the oaks and have formed personal connections to these beautiful trees. Some members of the elderly community talk about how they feel as if they have grown up with the trees because they were there during their childhood. Parents remark that the Oaks also provide shade and a place for children to play. They add natural splendor to the city of Salem.