Kah Tai Lagoon Nature Park may be characterized by its tall, swaying Lombardy Poplar trees, but in the future, a tree indigenous to Port Townsend will be joining them in the park’s …
Kah Tai Lagoon Nature Park may be characterized by its tall, swaying Lombardy Poplar trees, but in the future, a tree indigenous to Port Townsend will be joining them in the park’s skyline.
A group of local environmentalists hopes that the return of the Garry oak tree will also mean the return of native plants and animals who have lost their local habitats over time.
In 2018, a team of volunteers led by Rick and Debbie Jahnke planted more than 40 tree saplings on a 1-acre property on the north shore of Kah Tai Lagoon, most of them Garry oaks.
The land, which they acquired in 2015, was previously a horse and dairy farm, but had become overgrown over the years with blackberry bushes and other invasive plants.
The property was one of the few privately owned parcels surrounding the lagoon that was not sold or donated to the city of
Port Townsend and other government bodies when the park was created in 1981. When the property owners were finally willing to sell decades later, the Jahnkes pounced on the opportunity to help preserve the lagoon’s north shore, the park’s most protected shoreline due to its status as the best nesting habitat in the park.
“We’re latecomers,” Debbie Jahnke said. “We didn’t get to participate in the creation of the park, but we did get to add something in in the end.”
The couple intends to hold the parcel until the city submits a grant proposal to park improvements, at which point they will donate it for use as a match toward that grant.
The choice of saplings was very purposeful, Rick Jahnke said. Garry oaks are a keystone species, meaning that they serve as an “anchor” for hundreds of indigenous plant, animal and insect species.
Most importantly, Garry oaks, also known as the Oregon oak or the Oregon white oak, are the only truly indigenous oak to the area.
He reckons that if a non-native oak could support 10 species of birds, a Garry oak could support about 500.
Before European settlement in the Puget Sound, oak savannas characterized by distanced oaks and native grasses and flowers were plentiful. Oak Harbor and Oak Bay, for example, were named by European explorers for their oak groves. The area where Kah Tai now sits may have also been an oak savanna at one point in time, Debbie Jahnke said.
Under white settlement, these oaks began to disappear. The trees do not fare well in competitive environments, and are easily dominated by fast-growing Douglas firs in the struggle for space and sunlight. Local indigenous peoples would conduct periodic burnings to clear such competitors to the oaks, whose great canopies would provide shade for plants such as camas, which served many essential purposes in their communities. The fires could not damage the oak’s fire-resistant bark, and instead would allow them the room to thrive. These burns created many prairies and meadows in the region that still exist today, according to Rob Harbour, a volunteer caretaker of the grove.
“We have many plant and animal species that are now endangered because of the loss of the Garry oak savannas that we used to have,” Jahnke said.
The park’s plentiful poplar population may be nice to look at, but they are, as she put it, “short-lived, brittle, and have a branching structure that isn’t all that conducive to perching and nesting.”
Some native species, such as Oregon grape and the purple-flowering Brodiaea coronaria, have returned to the property after years of being smothered by Himalayan blackberry bushes.
The Jahnkes, as well as their fellow volunteers, are always fighting back the invasive blackberries, Scotch broom, and poison hemlock that continuously spread across the meadow and seeks to smother the small trees. Deer are also a threat, and the team has moved from chicken wire to goat wire to protect the saplings.
The Jahnkes complemented the oaks with maples, pines, and other smaller trees that will not out-shade the slow-growing oaks in their maturity.
However, for the time being the 40-plus trees are planted in rather close proximity to each other. Why?
“We didn’t expect them all to survive,” Jahnke said, adding that despite their current success, some of these saplings are sure to die at some point while others thrive.
This is not the first experience the couple has with preserving Kah Tai. Over the past decade, they have been instrumental in the effort to preserve the park against efforts to develop it. In 2010, just two years after the couple moved full-time to Port Townsend from Savannah, Georgia, the company Make Waves announced plans to build a large aquatic center on a section of the park owned by the Port of Port Townsend.
When the park was created in 1981, the Port, city, PUD, county and individual landowners all got partial ownership, and in 2010 the Port’s lease on a large portion of the park was up.
According to Rick Jahnke, the grant that created the park, from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund via the National Park Service, protected the park in perpetuity as a wildlife habitat with compatible passive recreation. In addition, the Port may have the lease on their section of the park, but they had signed over the land use to the city. Official records of this information, however, could not be found in the city or Port’s offices, and only partially in those of the NPS due to a fire, Rick Jahnke said. So, he and Debbie got to work finding those documents. They were both career oceanographers at the University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, and so this deep digging was nothing new to them.
“It was just another research project,” Debbie Jahnke said. “You leave what you do for a living and you still want to do it. We did academic research for 30 years so when we retired, looking at documents was nothing new and following trails was nothing new.”
They were successful in their mission. In 2017 — the aquatic center project long since abandoned — the final title was recorded at the Jefferson County Courthouse. The Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office and the city of Port Townsend affirmed the park’s designation as a wildlife habitat, clearing the path for projects such as the oak grove.
Rick Jahnke noted that, since the park sits at or below sea level, it’s not a wise place for the city to develop. It could, however, serve the city as a catchment basin for the floods stemming from rising sea levels.
“Not developing this was a really smart idea, because this could be a really important, fundamental, natural facility for the city to combat at least part of the sea level rise issues that they’re gonna be confronting in the next decade or two,” Jahnke said.
Kah Tai’s original 1981 design involved cutting down some of the poplars and adding groves of native trees such as oaks, a plan that never came to light due to disagreements in vision for the park’s future. Many people advocated for the development of large strip malls in the park and clashed with supporters of planting indigenous trees, he said.
“A lot of what was planted was by cover of night, or by birds,” Debbie Jahnke added.
However, renewed efforts to bring back the native oak savannas are taking place across the Puget Sound, from Oak Harbor to Sequim. Local efforts include those at Froggy Bottoms and Discovery Bay Brewing.
All of these projects have a similar goal: re-establish the native oak populations and in doing so bring back species of plants and animals that thrive in their shade. This shade might not become a reality for decades to come, however.
“They’re amazingly slow-growing trees,” Harbour said. “It’s incredible. It takes a crazy person or someone special to plant these little babies. We’re all gonna be dead before these things are masterpieces.”
Whether the Jahnkes are special or crazy in their endeavor, they knew what they got themselves into when they bought the property five years ago.
“You never plant a tree for yourself,” Debbie Jahnke said. “You plant it for the next generation, or, in the case of Garry oaks, two generations.”