Oak woodlands closer to being protected

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It took some time and pressure, but the board of supervisors has done the right thing for Tuolumne County's oak woodlands.

The board last week adopted an ordinance setting penalties for owners who clear oaks from their land before filing development applications. Until now such "premature cutting" has enabled property owners to skirt oak protection requirements that might be otherwise attached to development permits.

Regular readers are familiar with such cuts:

? Last February the removal of more than 50 oaks from property off Cedar Road in the Greenley basin spurred outrage. But the Community Development Department said the cutting was OK "as long as it is not done after permits are issued." The owners said they were only "cleaning up" the property.

? In April of 2007 oak clearing in the Greenhorn Creek area near Angels Camp spurred concerns among neighbors, who likened the property to a war zone. The owner said he had no development plans.

? In the past couple of months complaints have been made over cutting near Campo Seco Road, but the owner said he had no development plans and was only clearing for fire safety.

Under the ordinance adopted by the Tuolumne County board, property owners who file development applications within five years of such cuts could face stiff penalties or denial of their plans.

Affected would be those who clear more than 10 percent of the oak canopy from their property, cut down endangered Valley Oaks of more than five inches in diameter or fell old-growth oaks of more than two feet in diameter.

Fines levied against violators could be up to three times what they'd pay to protect or replace oaks in the normal development process.

Although enforcing the ordinance could be a problem, the teeth built into it should be a deterrent against preemptive cutting. The law was passed without opposition and with kudos from the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center.

Community Development Director Bev Shane credited Peter Jelito of Tuolumne with getting the ordinance on the front burner. While involved in the county's Master Gardener program, Jelito fielded numerous questions about oaks and learned much about their value.

The Greenley-area cut, he said, inspired him to ask for action. "That was almost incredible," Jelito said.

Although hoping the law will be an effective deterrent, he said the real key to oak preservation is educating the public and developers on the value of oak woodland which is habitat to scores of wildlife species and how best to preserve them.

The Tuolumne County foothills now host hundreds of thousands of acres of oak woodland, a statewide resource that the Legislature in 2004 ordered protected. The ordinance passed by the board last week goes a long way toward doing so.

The second step will come with adoption of uniform oak preservation standards that can be applied to all developments. Already debated at length, the standards should appear in a revised wildlife handbook now undergoing a contractor's $93,000 revision.

The handbook should be up for review late this summer. Supervisors, we hope, will approve rules that are just as effective and practical as those they adopted last week.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Ron Horton; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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