SUTHERLIN — The Sutherlin FFA members spent Tuesday afternoon collecting several hundred white and black oak acorns in hopes of eventually turning a hillside into an oak savanna, a combination of oak trees and grasslands.

The effort is part of a project by The Friends of Ford’s Pond and the city of Sutherlin to develop a park in the area around Ford’s Pond, just west of Sutherlin. The group decided to restore 50 acres of property on the hillside, on the west side of the property, and restore the oak forest that has diminished largely because of land development over the years.

“It’s a restoration of a native oak savannah forest which supports native species,” said James Thatcher, the vice-president of the board for the Friends of Ford’s Pond.

About 14 FFA students were out gathering the acorns Tuesday evening. A landowner adjacent to the property invited them to come onto his ranch and gather acorns, so the students wouldn’t have to fight the blackberry vines growing under the trees on the park property.

The students used a long pole with a hook to shake the trees and capture the falling acorns on a large tarp. They were able to gather several hundred acorns and will take them back to a greenhouse at the school to raise saplings that will be planted on the hillside, where oak trees used to be much more plentiful.

“We collect the acorns in a tub of water, and you can tell the difference between good and bad. They float if they’re bad and sink if they’re good,” said Nolan Carson, a junior at Sutherlin High School.

The project could take several years to develop.

“From acorn to plantable sapling is going to be two years, and hopefully some of the students that are gathering the acorns will be back to plant the saplings,” Thatcher said.

Sutherlin High School FFA advisor Wes Crawford said it’s a great project for his group. They were happy to help with the acorn project, he said, and they learned a lot from the process.

“We’re collecting from oaks on-site, because those trees are adapted to that area, so we gather from multiple trees for genetic diversity,” Crawford said.

“It’s really interesting to do an environmental science focus community service project; I think that’s really unique and, personally, I’ve never heard of finding seeds and propagating trees out of that. So I’m really excited about it,” Carson said.

The FFA was able to purchase the new greenhouse with the grant money they received.

“We’ll be able to have plenty of space to propagate these oak trees and bring them back and complete this service project over the next two years,” said senior Keaten Clarno.

Oak savannah is a high priority in Douglas County for the state and federal conservation agencies because of the enhancement that it provides for several native species of wildlife.

“Oak savannah used to be pretty common in this area, but it’s been lost due to development,” Crawford said.

Crawford says they collect acorns from the trees on the hillside because they know the seedlings are likely to be able to thrive there.

The FFA is using GPS to map each of the trees that the students gathered the acorns from. They log each one in their GPS, so they can go back and find the trees that had the best genetics in their acorns.

Friends of the Ford’s Pond is pursuing a $25,000 grant through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Partners for Fish and Wildlife.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist Allison Manwaring said the project will greatly benefit wildlife, and especially some species of birds.

“A number of birds, both resident and migratory birds that travel all the way to Mexico and Central America for the winter, plus deer and a number of other mammals will benefit,” she said.

A landowner’s guide published by the BLM, U.S. Forest Service, the Oregon Department of Forestry, the OSU Extension Service and conservation groups reported that that less than 1 percent of oak-dominated habitats are protected in parks or reserves and private landowners hold the key to maintaining their natural legacy.

The Friends of Ford’s Pond hope the end result will be a family-friendly park that will enhance many kinds of native wildlife and draw visitors to the area.

Reporter Dan Bain can be reached at 541-957-4221 or e-mail at dbain@nrtoday.com.

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Dan Bain is the health reporter for The News-Review. He previously worked at KPIC and 541 Radio.

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