The Cultural Values of Oaks

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Oaks ‘n’ Folks – Volume 18, Issue 1 – February 2002 

The value of oaks for a diverse suite of uses and advantages, only some of which are cash producing, has been recognized in other parts of the United States and the world on both public and private land. For those of us resident in California, oaks have less certain prospects. Oaks hereabouts have been prized as firewood, habitat, and for providing forage and shelter—but a good stand of oaks is not so sure a source of profit. In fact, the return associated with oaks routinely is more cultural than economic. But just because California’s rural oaks don’t routinely produce cash-flow doesn’t mean that they lack enduring value. Instead, it demonstrates that we need to work all the harder at understanding the less apparent significance of oaks on the landscape, and make those numbers known.

A geographer friend of mine, Dr. Martin Lewis of Duke and Stanford Universities, suggests in Green Delusions: An Environmentalist Critique of Radical Environmentalism that we had better get over attributing a vague and imprecise “value” to natural goods and services. Better instead, he explains, would be for us to learn that, however regrettably, it is economics and market forces that make the world turn. If we don’t have set numbers for what we prize, then we’d best learn how to calculate them. That’s a great imperative, and whether our passions relate to oaks for carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat protection, an oak as yard or landscape ornament, or assigning value to the woodland as part of a system of production that creates more recognizable natural resource-based commodities, oaks have value.

So what’s an oak worth, and why? We start, perhaps, with the solitary oak, standing in isolation as a first forlorn beacon of possibility but arguing for a once far-larger presence as part of a whole forest. But how, then, to value an entire woodland of oaks, a feature that has altogether another aspect? Or even more, what of an entire cultural and economic way of life, a community that goes with the woodland? The question of putting a value to oaks is hardly an insignificant one, especially for those who attended the Fifth Symposium on Oak Woodlands, considering how difficult it would be to set a dollar figure for oaks or even a tribute to their ecological or spiritual worth.

Contemplating the value of oaks, especially their cultural merit, is a dicey undertaking, made especially so by an abysmal ignorance about what nature is innately worth. Oaks are remarkably complex: On their own they have existence value; there is a separate scale and stature and ledger for their products; and collectively, woodlands have significant worth as an entire ecosystem. Yet as parts or whole, a woodland of oaks is valued; and few elements of any natural system have such diverse values individually and so murky a pricing scheme for the whole. An oak may be worth something determinable, as a live tree, firewood, habitat, or an acorn source; but even some of those numbers are contradictory—a live tree can’t also be felled as firewood. There is further value of the oak as wildlife habitat, carbon sink, and as part of the biotic diversity. The single oak will have a calculable value; the oak woodland is so capacious and complex, that it’s difficult to appraise its price in an enduring, agreed-upon, and universal way.

Our separation as professors, teachers, government employees, researchers, agency personnel, students, ranchers, and the like, has brought us to a point where the diversity, productivity, and richness in uses of an oak woodland fails to be foremost in our minds. Buying into a doctrine of parts, we have come to a point where we see not the forest, not even the trees, but only elements of a particular problem: a disease, or a site, or a species, or a fire, or the genome of a specific kind of tree. The grove is part of reductionist science and indifferent to policy. All but lost is a sheer joy and pleasure in how woodlands look, smell, feel, sound, and taste.

That was not always so. In 1776, José de Cañizares, a Spanish sailor and an accomplished cartographer, produced a map that included detailed (if less than precise) renditions of oaks as a recognizable element of the Bay Area landscape. For these Spanish navigators, Alta California was a visually familiar landscape, and for that all the more attractive a stopping-off point. The point is simple: our perception of the oak woodland, once taken in as a visually dominant feature, has changed from something collective and respectful into an isolated preference for individual heritage-grade trees; in part because so many of the great groves are gone, but also because our sense of the whole is supplanted by a view of the single oak as property and commodity.

A day will come — it is already a fact in the European Union—when landowners will be paid, as a public good, to regenerate oaks on their lands. And why aren’t there similar types of payments in the West? There are some who have managed to make grazing rangelands adjacent to developed areas pay. For an example, consider the notorious “Goats-R-Us” in the San Francisco Bay Area, which graze the wooded slopes of Sutro Peak (and significant parts of the East Bay Regional Park District), at a neat fee of up to $700 per acre, remitted to the “Goat Man.” Rarely has being a shepherd—or goat rancher—paid so handsomely.

The question of how we can best value California’s oak woodlands remains unanswered. What is crucial to the continued well-being of California’s oak woodlands is coming up with some scheme that makes valuation credible, shareable, inclusive, and understandable. We welcome those incoming details, for it is time for us to take knowledge and from that not just ask, but also answer the question: What will California’s oak woodlands become?

Editor’s note—Paul F. Starrs is associate professor of geography at the University of Nevada, in Reno. Author of Let the Cowboy Ride: Cattle Ranching in the American West (Johns Hopkins, 1998), he has worked for years on the oak woodlands of California, Spain, and Portugal.

prepared and edited by Adina Merenlender and Emily Heaton