The Elder Creek Oak Woodland Preserve is a private preserve soon to be protected by conservation easement that encompasses 233 acres of primarily steep hills of blue oak woodland containing dozens of old-growth manzanitas.
This preserve is located in the Elder Creek Watershed, which covers about 150 square miles and ranges in elevation from over 8000 feet to about 250 feet above sea level. Named biological communities within the watershed include: alpine, inland closed-cone coniferous forest, foothill scrub or mixed chaparral, blue oak woodland, oak savanna, riparian woodland, and valley grassland. Over 72 miles of streams and creeks make up the watershed, making it one of the longer ones on the west side of the northern Sacramento Valley.
Such a diverse land means there are many transitional zones between the differing plant communities–the riparian area of the Preserve being on one of them–with outliers being fairly common throughout. For example, finding California bay growing as an understory below canyon live oak at 3000 feet is not surprising, but finding bay growing with alder, grape, figs, big leaf maple and valley oak at 820 feet is quite astonishing!
The majority of the watershed is blue oak savanna (former woodland that has been “thinned”) and woodland. Blue oaks are incredibly well adapted to the dry-summer climate of about six rainless months in a row that include numerous days with temperatures well over 100-degrees Fahrenheit. These oaks, if situated in a drainage or seep, can grow rather vigorously and reach heights near 100 feet. In particularly dry locations, one arborist reported, they can grow so slowly that at 100 years of age they are only eight inches in diameter. This means there are many rather diminutive old-growth blue oaks in the watershed, dozens alone here on the Preserve.
Common companions to blue oaks are manzanitas, buckeyes, toyon, mountain mahogany, buck brush, and a wide variety of wildflowers including yampah, ookow, hound’s tongue, mule’s ears, and nearly the whole gamut of the lilies of northern California. Titmice, acorn woodpeckers, flickers, nuthatches and bluebirds are year-round dwellers of blue oaks, and the seasonal community includes juncos, finches, tanagers and vireos.
Humans, deer, turkeys, pigs and coyotes are the common large animals of the watershed and the Preserve, and, occasionally, a bobcat, badger, skunk, porcupine, black bear or mountain lion makes an appearance. Beavers and river otters are present on the creeks, though their numbers are far too few.
Keystone species at the Preserve include: woodrats, ground squirrels, bobcats, poison oak, valley oaks, blue oaks and acorn woodpeckers.
Imagining what this land was like not so long ago when the populations of all the native non-human species were tens to hundreds of times more abundant than today, and spring run salmon still made their way 15 or 20 miles up the creek from the Sacramento River, it is hard not to feel a wave of remorse at the tremendous loss of life brought on by the day-to-day actions of an economy founded on extraction. However, understanding the past helps us read the land better, and thus influences our choices about how best to assist the land in her* healing and dying.
* This is not the word we usually use about the land, but since that word is not English, this is the next best one to use. To us, land and life are interchangeable words and neither should be called an “it.”