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Shifting Baselines in a California Oak Savanna: Nineteenth Century Data to Inform Restoration Scenarios. Restoration Ecology 19 (101), 88-101 . SFEI Contribution No. 593.2010.
For centuries humans have reduced and transformed Mediterranean-climate oak woodland and savanna ecosystems, making it difficult to establish credible baselines for ecosystem structure and composition that can guide ecological restoration efforts. We combined historical data sources, with particular attention to mid-1800s General Land Office witness tree records and maps and twentieth century air photos, to reconstruct 150 years of decline in extent and stand density of Valley oak (Quercus lobata Neé) woodlands and savannas in the Santa Clara Valley of central coastal California. Nineteenth century Valley oak woodlands here were far more extensive and densely stocked than early twentieth century air photos would suggest, although reconstructed basal areas (7.5 m2/ha) and densities (48.9 trees/ha) were not outside the modern range reported for this ecosystem type. Tree densities and size distribution varied across the landscape in relation to soil and topography, and trees in open savannas were systematically larger than those in denser woodlands. For the largest woodland stand, we estimated a 99% decline in population from the mid-1800s to the 1930s. Although most of the study area is now intensely developed, Valley oaks could be reintroduced in urban and residential areas as well as in surrounding rangelands at densities comparable to the native oak woodlands and savannas, thereby restoring aspects of ecologically and culturally significant ecosystems, including wildlife habitat and genetic connectivity within the landscape.