Victory for Oak Woodland at an El Dorado County High School
Students, community rally to save an outdoor classroom
By Kathy Morrison
In the end, the oaks won — so did the students, green energy, and even the school district.
But it didn’t look that way a few months earlier when Union Mine High School science teacher Rick Kientz discovered oak trees near campus marked for removal. He learned the El Dorado Union High School District intended to install solar panel arrays at each of the four district high schools, projects designed to save the district more than $12 million over 25 years. But while the other three projects would cover parking lots, Union Mine’s was planned for an area of oak woodland next to the school.
A huge number of students on campus were talking about it
The site in western El Dorado County is home to blue oak (Quercus douglasii), black oak (Q. kelloggii), and interior live oak (Q. wislenzlii). About 40 to 50 would have to be pulled out, removing an irreplaceable habitat and educational resource. Kientz and other teachers often bring students to the area for easily accessed field trips. It’s not an undisturbed property, but it includes a creek and other native plants, such as buckbrush (Ceanothus cuneatus), waxy checkerbloom (Sidalcea glaucescens), and yellow star tulip (Calochortus monophyllus). In this outdoor classroom Kientz’s students study water quality, survey native plants, and learn species co-evolution.
Kientz questioned the district about the Union Mine plans, which didn’t seem to include information on biological surveys, grading, heritage resource surveys, or much else that typically goes into required California Environmental Quality Act reviews. The answer his queries received: “We wish we could have had this conversion earlier in the process.” It looked like the project was unstoppable, Kientz informed his students.
But he discovered the city of Placerville was installing a solar array of about the same size and scope that was going through the CEQA process. Whether the school district believed it was exempt from CEQA or just wasn’t aware, Kientz and his students realized the project was not set in stone. They redoubled their efforts to save the oaks. The school board planned to consider the project on April 9. In preparation, Kientz’s students took on different roles: The freshman earth science students made signs; the AP environmental science seniors researched CEQA rules. Others wrote an open letter to the board that was published in the Mountain Democrat.
“A huge number of students on campus were talking about it,” Kientz said. Parents, alumni, and other community members took notice. The CNPS El Dorado Chapter’s conservation co-chair, Lester Lubetkin, contributed a letter to the board, noting the fragility of the blue oak species in particular.
About 20 students attended the meeting, bringing their signs and cogent, and targeted arguments. The board listened, Kientz says. “Student voices and community involvement won the day.” The district agreed to renegotiate the contract, moving the planned solar array to the UMHS parking lot and preserving the oak woodland.
“Conservation takes people working together,” CNPS Conservation Program Director Greg Suba says. “Mr. Kientz and his students have given us this great example of how important work gets done one community at a time.”
Why every oak matters
✔ Oaks are the supermarket of the natural world. Oak woodlands support hundreds of animal, pollinator, and bird species.
✔ Oaks fight global warming by capturing carbon dioxide. The heavy wood of oaks stores more carbon than most other trees.
✔ Oaks bring economic benefit. A University of California study found that a neighborhood located 10 percent closer to an oak stand showed a $4M increase in the overall value of the 544 houses in that community.
Want to help oaks? Connect with the California Oak Foundation or get involved in Re-Oak California. Learn more at www.cnps.org/reoak.
You can make a difference in your community, too. Here are three great ways to get started.
Learn about your local CNPS chapter’s conservation priorities.
Go to www.cnps.org/chapter-priorities.
Get to know the California Environmental Quality Act.
Our quick guide covers the basics at www.cnps.org/ceqa-guide.
Know your local plants. Your chapter is the best place to begin.
Find your local chapter at www.cnps.org/chapters.