When Tom Pott and Jenny Horvath moved onto their 81 acre property on Kimball Hill in 2014, they soon realized this hilltop prairie, dominated by canyon live oak, white oak and numerous native grasses and forbs, is among only a handful of such prairie ecosystems remaining in the Lower Rogue Watershed.

Oak habitats are among the richest wildlife habitats in Oregon, harboring hundreds of species not found in neighboring conifer-dominated landscapes.

Historically, oaks were widespread throughout the valleys and foothills of Oregon. Since the start of European settlement in the mid-1800s, estimates of regional oak habitat losses in Oregon range from 50 percent to near total loss.

A variety of factors have contributed to the loss of oak habitats. In earlier times, Native Americans set frequent fires to maintain oak prairies and woodlands in open conditions. These fires reduced competing vegetation and allowed oaks to thrive, attracting important wildlife and producing large numbers of acorns and other key resources for native people.

Following European settlement, many oak woodlands and prairies were converted for agriculture or urban development. Also, decades of fire suppression during the latter half of the 1900s have allowed less fire-resistant yet faster-growing tree species, such as Douglas fir, to encroach upon and displace oak trees.

This encroachment is clearly evident on Kimball Hill where conifers have already begun to shade and destroy centuries-old oaks.

As Tom and Jenny became more familiar with the land, and how forest dynamics had changed over the past 150 years, they wanted to help maintain this historic, diverse, and beautiful oak/prairie ecosystem.

In 2017, Tom and Jenny reached out to Kelly Timchak, coordinator for the Lower Rogue Watershed Council (LRWC) in Gold Beach, for assistance with their restoration project. The council’s mission is to protect, enhance, and restore long-term natural resources and the economic stability of the Lower Rogue Watershed and the near-shore environment. To this end, Kelly was able to obtain a grant for the project, bringing on local arborist Tim Scullen to do more of the complicated thinning, and coordinating on-site consultations with wildlife biologists and botanists from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Forest Service to inform some of the process.

On March 20, members of the LRWC joined the landowners (along with dog escorts, Luna and Jitterbug) on a tour of Kimball Hill, and saw the incredible results of the project thus far. Their dedication to the project was evident from their stories of the restoration process and the amazing amount of work they have accomplished in a relatively short time.

As we walked up and down hills and along ridges with vistas of the Rogue estuary, Gold Beach bridge and the ocean to the west, we saw where Tim had freed numerous ancient oaks (some more than 300 years old) from encroaching conifers. Most of the felled logs were harvested for use by Tom and Jenny, while others were piled to create habitat structures for wildlife, and some firs were left to stand as snags (another important component of habitat complexity).

Slash piles were burned over the winter, releasing vital nutrients back to the soil and this spring, Jenny is reseeding the soil below the burn piles with native grasses and flower seed.

Last fall, Tom and Jenny started propagating canyon live oak from collected acorns, and now have a healthy crop of seedlings growing in a sunny spot in the house, ready to be planted on the property. They are increasing the number of oak on their property and adding to the future acorn supply for local wildlife.

Needless to say, this hard work is truly a labor of love. As Tom said, “When we first began conceiving the project, we didn’t expect it to become such a community-building endeavor, but that has ended up being among the most rewarding elements. We’ve learned so much from Kelly and Tim, and the contributions from the local scientists. Kimball Hill is a special place and it’s great to have people working together in a creative way up here. Everyone involved has shown such a deep knowledge of, and love for, the land and the river ... it’s been wonderful to see that.”

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Ellie Bush is a veterinarian and a member of the Lower Rogue Watershed Council.

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