The commitment in the Oak Harbor community to maintain and restore its namesake tree, the Garry oak, is far-reaching and inspiring. “Being in a Garry oak Savannah makes one want to spread out a blanket, listen to the birdsong, and spend all day amongst the wildflowers and trees” reflects Brad Gluth, the City’s stormwater engineer and Vice President of the local oak conservation group.
The Garry oak, Quercus garryana, is the only white oak native to western Washington. It is remarkable: drought tolerant, with a striking branch pattern, provides valuable habitat for wildlife and can live to be hundreds of years old. Historically, northern Whidbey Island had thousands of Garry oaks as part of a savannah ecosystem. Over centuries, largely due to urbanization, the population has been reduced to hundreds. Many giants remain in Oak Harbor’s iconic Smith Park, pre-dating the incorporation of the town, and sprinkled throughout the City.
With many trees aging out, the residents of Oak Harbor alongside the Oak Harbor Garry Oak Society (OHGOS), City of Oak Harbor, and Oak Harbor Garden Club have taken up shovels and arms in one of the most active publicly engaged efforts to “re-oak” the City.
Names are a powerful way to think about a place. To the residents of Oak Harbor, the Garry oaks and their ecosystems are viewed as a treasured asset in the landscape of their city. The Garry oaks provide a way for Oak Harbor’s residents to think about the past, present and future of their home town.
Oak Harbor was named for the Garry oak in 1851 (before it was incorporated in May 1915), where acres of oaks were scattered close to the shoreline. However, long before then, residents reflect on how native tribes used controlled burns to cultivate the open meadows surrounding clumps of oak trees, which allowed the camas bulb, an important part of their diet, to flourish. Acorns produced by the trees were also relied upon as a food source for tribes.
Due to resident advocacy, the City Code enacted in 1990 provided provision of protection for the oaks from destruction during projects. Famously, citizen outcry sparked when a 330-year old Grand Old Oak at the Oak Harbor Post Office was cut down in 2014 after the tree, which had lost some major limbs, was deemed a liability.
In response by 2015, a group of concerned residents assembled to discuss strategy for Garry oak conservation and formed the Oak Harbor Garry Oak Society, which has since obtained non-profit status. On the city’s 100th birthday, community volunteers dug in and created the “Centennial Grove” by planting 100 Garry oak saplings and 300 seedlings on an 18-acre parcel of land at the northern entrance to the town.
Since then, OHGOS has continued to partner with the City in order to plant Garry oaks within a large number of parks and along walking trails. In each of the focus areas within the City that are planted, OHGOS provides seedlings sourced from local acorns. Re-establishing Garry groves in backyards, parks and other public places will be a gradual process that requires a long-term vision. “The landscape is not about the here and now,” Brad said. “It’s about planting oaks to retain the legacy.”
Oak Harbor’s roots run deep and the community welcomes participation in many Garry oak educational and restoration activities including:
- Visit the Native Garden at the town’s Post Office. This pocket park, maintained by OHGOS volunteers, now includes over 30 species of native plants and two interpretive signs, one of which explains the life cycle of the Garry oak and gives tribute to the Grand Old Oak that used to reside there.
- Take a walk through Smith Park, which contains around 150 mature Garry oak trees, and may be the only such park in the State. OHGOS volunteers and the City Parks Department designed multi-panel interpretive signage for the park. OHGOS volunteers work yearly to add native plant restoration in key areas of the park. In 2019, City Parks approved OHGOS’s proposal for deferred mowing in the Park in order to promote native wildflower Restoration.
- Recently, OHGOS and the City of Oak Harbor came together with Naval Air Station Whidbey Island personnel to plant seedling oaks on Navy property and remove invasive species. The Navy property is said to be the last untouched Garry oak woodland remaining on Whidbey Island.
- Drive down the “Avenue of the Oaks”, an honorary designation to oak-lined SE 8th Avenue in the city, and the town’s most recent project. OHGOS is financing the purchase of street sign toppers which will serve to highlight this unique street while providing context for visitors and residents.
- OHGOS has made classroom visits and served as the featured speaker for adult volunteer groups and local Library classes. With grant funds, the organization houses oak-related books and materials for schools in Oak Harbor, including private schools. In addition to classroom visits, the organization has planted oaks on school campuses.
- Be on the lookout for volunteers that are typically staffing outreach booths at major outdoor cultural festivals in Oak Harbor.