When most conservationists speak of forest protection here in the Pacific Northwest region, they are usually talking about the giants of valley floor forest ecosystems, such as Western red cedar, Douglas fir, and Sitka spruce. There is a species, though, that seems to consistently fly under the radar. That tree is the Garry Oak (Quercus Garryana), also known as the Oregon White Oak. With its twisting trunks and beautifully detailed bark, it doesn’t have the enormous size of many of its relatives in the oak family, but in its natural habitat it certainly fills a vital and unique ecological niche.
Garry Oak ecosystems, which also support a wide variety of specialized plant life, have for years been endangered in their northern range. They are generally found on British Columbia’s Gulf Islands and on a relatively narrow strip along Vancouver Island’s east coast. Though once absolutely common in those areas, these trees have not fallen victim to disease, conventional logging, or even climate change, for the most part. So what, exactly, has shrunk their habitat?
The answer is actually quite obvious: their greatest enemy is none other than encroaching human civilization. People have a great desire to build homes in waterfront areas, where trees like arbutus and Garry Oak often thrive. Unfortunately, land developers highly covet the land they grow upon, and this has led to severe reduction or elimination of many groves.
It’s now estimated that less than 5% of Garry Oak ecosystems here in coastal British Columbia remain intact. Most of those are basically islands of preserved growth that were once part of broader populations that also encouraged greater genetic diversity. As a result, numerous species found in those ecosystems are either become endangered or at risk. What’s worse, they are often battling invasive species like Scotch broom just to survive!
In the vicinity of Nanaimo, where I reside, one can find fair sized Garry Oak forests in Nanoose Bay, Parksville, Harewood Plains, Joan Point, and Mt Tzouhalem, to name a few. Sadly though, countless other populations are either small, dwindling, or already eliminated. I’m soon hoping to explore these forests in springtime, when their numerous wildflowers emerge. It’s a world I’m just beginning to discover, in what I now call my backyard. Here on Vancouver Island there is a society devoted to these trees, it’s called the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society ( GOMPS ). Continual efforts must be made to set aside protected areas for these fast disappearing trees, for without them, so much will be lost. The Garry Oak is well worth treasuring!