The East Cascades Oak Partnership (ECOP) is a group of people who know and love the Columbia River Gorge and the East Cascades as a place with thriving wildlife, a vibrant economy, and incredible beauty. We recognized the importance of Oregon white oak habitats to our quality of life, to a strong economy, and to the well-being of hundreds of species of plants and wildlife with which we share our home. We are collaborating to leverage resources, share knowledge, and implement conservation strategies that will help protect vulnerable oak habitats, encouraging more sustainable human interactions with these important resources and improving outcomes for people, oaks and wildlife.
Our mission is to empower people to make decisions and take actions that improve outcomes for Oregon white oak systems.
The immediate business of the partnership was to develop a strategic action plan that can help guide partners to effective conservation strategies. This plan is intended to be adaptive, and depending on the nature of the strategies, will require ongoing engagement and coordination between partners. For this reason, we anticipate the partnership will continue into the future as long as it has utility and partners remain engaged. The strategic action plan is considering a work period of 10 years, though it too is adaptive and will be responsive to change.
ECOP serves nearly the full geography of Oregon white oak distribution in the East Cascades ecoregion, an area roughly bounded by the Yakama Nation Indian Reservation to the north, the Warm Springs Indian Reservation to the south, the Cascade Mountains to the west, and the shrub-steppe of the Columbia Plateau to the east.
Our 2020-2030 Strategic Plan is the result of thousands of hours of study and conversation among state and federal public agencies, tribes, nonprofits, watershed councils, conservation districts, small businesses, private landowners, and interested citizens. When we started the planning process, our goals were to align ourselves around a shared vision for oak conservation, increase partner collaboration, begin the work of answering key management questions, and leverage resources to advance priority strategies.
Collectively, we recognize the importance of Oregon white oak systems to our quality of life and the species who inhabit these systems. This is why we’ve banded together, relying on more than 3,500 hours of pooled knowledge, resources, and well-vetted conservation strategies to help protect our region’s prized Oregon white oaks and their surrounding habitats.
Oregon white oak occupies diverse niches in the East Cascades. A lone oak might be massive and spreading in a native bunchgrass savanna or one among thousands huddled together on an exposed slope, dwarfed by the wind. They persist in shallow soils, in fertile soils, among pine and fir, in meadows or talus. They stand alone, in clumps, on mounds or like shrubs. They support over 200 species of wildlife with their acorn crops, microbial and plant associations, and their abundant cavities. They withstand fire, re-sprout following disturbance, and, by virtue of their hollow cores and gaping cavities, provide the resources of both a living and a dead tree.
Oaks provide shade in a harsh environment for people and livestock, exhibit hardiness in response to fire and grazing, support abundant game species like deer, elk, and turkey, and provide abundant first foods like balsamroot, desert parsley, bitterroot, and acorns. Their trunks are energy-rich, dense wood that makes excellent firewood and strong boards, their fire-resistant crowns grow acorns that feed wildlife and people, house an abundance of birds that fill our skies with song, and shade wildflowers that feed important pollinators. They provide a beautiful backdrop for popular mountain biking and hiking trails, inspiration for artists and philosophers, and a fascinating landscape for curious minds to explore.
“The persistent, the common, the various, the adaptable has value in itself. The oak’s distinction is its insistence and its flexibility. The tree helps and is helped in turn. It specializes in not specializing.” – William Bryant Logan, Oak: The Frame of Civilization
There is some mystery and much debate surrounding how far oak form and function has departed from pre-settlement condition in the East Cascades. Fire continues to play a significant role in shaping oak systems, but the frequency and intensity of fire have been altered by fire suppression, fuel loading, and changes in forest structure and species composition. Topography, soil types and exposure create microclimates that also impact fire behavior and intensity, as do anthropogenic influences such as timber harvest, grazing, and introduction of non-native species. The cultural and ecological complexities and diversity of oak systems suggest a need for a deeper understanding, an understanding that is achievable through rigorous science, listening to our elders, and expanded dialogue between stakeholders who live, work, and play amongst the oaks.
Climate modeling recently completed by The Nature Conservancy predicts the East Cascades, with its high diversity of soil types, microclimates and biodiversity, will have higher resilience to climate change than many other regions of North America. The oak landscape may well serve a vehicle of change and adaption for hundreds of species of plants and wildlife in the East Cascades ecoregion, provided we can sustain an interconnected diversity of oak systems through the coming decades. The majority of Oregon white oak woodlands, savanna and mixed oak-pine forests in the East Cascades are located on private lands. Oaks are largely unprotected from development or conversion to more commercially-valuable species, and they are at risk of encroachment by less fire-tolerant species such as Douglas-fir.
Many people recognize the importance of conserving and managing East Cascade oak systems, but collectively we lack the clear goals, strong financial support, and resources to successfully implement a landscape scale conservation and restoration effort that is compatible with the many diverse goals of landowners and stakeholders in the region.
We believe future generations of people, plants, and animals will value these places as we do and, by acting as a partnership, we seek to convey to those future generations a healthy and thriving landscape on which we can live.
The partners are engaged in a two-year planning process that includes building a shared base of understanding, examining landowner and stakeholder goals and decision-making on the landscape, and identifying opportunities to improve outcomes for oak by working with, not against, the people who interact with them.
A shared base of understanding
During our four annual full-day partnership meetings we build presentations, tours, panels, and discussions around a theme. To date, we’ve learned the biology and ecology of oak systems and many of the species who occupy them, we’ve learned about ranching operations and grazing practices, restoration and management challenges, historic conditions of oak systems and the history of the landscape post-settlement, indigenous perspectives on oak systems and first foods, application of prescribed fire, vineyard development and soils, existing regulatory frameworks landowners are already responding to, planning processes underway that shape how development and land use change happens, and the successes and challenges of incentive programs available to landowners. We’ve hired consultants to help us understand how our stakeholders prefer to receive information, how they learn and who from. Building a shared base of understanding with this information was a critical step toward creating a strategic plan that is supported by partners and responsive to the root causes of decisions that damage oak systems.
Examining Landowner Goals and Decision-making
The partners, who collectively already represent a diversity of people who live, work and play in our region, also interviewed over 40 stakeholders to understand the contributing factors to decisions that have impacts on oaks. This learning helps inform the strategies we develop and hope will address the root causes of decisions that damage oak systems and enable decisions that help them thrive.
The partnership is moving with urgency and purpose, recognizing that the following considerations require sound planning and action to conserve East Cascade Oregon white oaks:
- Permanent loss of biodiversity including pollinators, songbirds, and game species
- Loss of connectivity limits climate resilience
- Endangered Species Act listings
- New barriers to economic development
- Development in the Wildland Urban Interface limits use of prescribed fire and elevates cost/risk of fire protection
- Diminished quality of life
The partnership is open to any interested person or organization who embraces the goals of the group as well as the partnership agreements below. If you are interested in getting involved, please reach out to Lindsay Cornelius, natural area manager with Columbia Land Trust and leader of the East Cascades Oak Partnership. You can view our Declaration of Cooperation here.
- We believe we can accomplish long-term, higher-impact conservation through collaboration with partners and stakeholders.
- We believe people in our region care about land, plants, and wildlife.
- We believe people’s well-being is directly linked to our region’s ecological well-being.
- People’s relationships with land give this region its character. We believe understanding how people interact with oak systems and what they need from the oak landscape will help us find conservation solutions that work.
- We believe best management practices help people make decisions that improve outcomes for oak systems. Best management practices should be informed by sound science, traditional ecological knowledge, and should consider East Cascade site diversity and a wide range of management goals.
- We need to fill knowledge gaps specific to East Cascade oak systems, including around historical conditions, system diversity, and oak system response to management practices and climate change.
- We need to work at multiple scales deploying different strategies, including at the national, regional, state, and local scale, in collaboration with other oak partnerships and stakeholders.
The current East Cascades Oak Partnership roster includes:
USFS – Gifford Pinchot National Forest
USFS- Mount Hood National Forest
USFS – Pacific Northwest Research Station
USFS – Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Columbia River Gorge Commission
National Resource Conservation Service (OR and WA)
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Washington Department of Natural Resources – Natural Areas Program
Washington Department of Natural Resources – Natural Heritage Program
Oregon State Parks
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
Oregon Department of Forestry
Klickitat County Natural Resources Department
Mosier Watershed Council
Wasco Collaborative/Sustainable NW
Wasco County Planning Department
Underwood Conservation District
Central and Eastern Klickitat Conservation Districts
Hood River Watershed Group
Sandy River Basin Watershed Council
Hood River Soil and Water Conservation District
Wasco Soil and Water Conservation District
Skookum Resource Management, INC
Vinitas Consulting, LLC
February 2021 Conservation Partnership Announces Strategic Action Plan for Protecting White Oak Landscapes.
Columbia Land Trust Heralds Landmark Conservation Effort for the Decade Ahead. (ECOP Press Release)