Alan George, "Mr. Oak"
“We are essentially a people to whom land comes first. We are its children; we have emotional ties to it that we can never forget, even way down into generations that no longer live in the old way. It is a basic part of our identity – it makes us feel who we are, and without it, we have been cut off and bewildered.” –Alfred Ketzler
"Where once there had been riparian woodlands ten miles wide, now they do not exceed a few hundred feet and are confined to preserves. Oaks once covered a million acres, but only 1 percent of that acreage is now considered pristine oak woodlands. The king of trees has been reduced to a few solitary mendicants.” -- Philip L. Fradkin
Myrtle Davis Franklin with Don Hillman during the KOP dedication May 15, 1983
Alan George speaking at KOP dedication 05/15/1983
Photos for this article by: John Greening, Greg Schwaller, and courtesy of Rob Hansen; mural by Doug Hansen, courtesy of Sequoia Riverlands Ttust
KAWEAH OAKS PRESERVE
First Person Account:
A Lucky Day In The Office
by Alan George
The 324 acres now known as Kaweah Oaks Preserve (KOP) is a remnant of one of the finest Valley Oak woodlands still left in the world. Valley Oaks grow only in California mainly along the state’s waterways and generally below an elevation of 2500 feet. Their species, Quercus lobata, is the largest of all oaks and is generally considered the most attractive and graceful. KOP is considered one of the best examples remaining of the original 400 square miles of oak forest that thrived in the Kaweah River watershed. This forest spread from the base of the Sierra on the east to the edge of historic Tulare Lake (now drained) on the west.
The aboriginal Yokut Indians of the Wuchumna tribe used the acorns from this area as a primary source of food. They harvested many plants and hunted animals here but never actually lived on this site because of the annual spring floods.
By the turn of the twentieth century, this forest was disappearing at a rapid rate and was being replaced by agriculture – grains, orchards, and vineyards. The property that became KOP, however, had been kept as grazing land for cattle, with little to no cutting of the oaks.
Because I had long been interested in Tulare County history and the preservation of the Valley Oaks, saving 324 acres of native oak woodland was the chance of a lifetime for me. The whole process was like a big jigsaw puzzle with all the parts finally coming together to the satisfaction of all involved.
The property had belonged to the Davis family of Woodlake for several generations and had been used for cattle grazing with no land tillage, ever. The Nature Conservancy, a national land conservation group interested in significant land preservation, had approached the Davis family previously, to ask whether thy might be interested in selling their land, but the family was not interested in selling because they wanted to stay in the cattle business.
I was employed as a Farm Advisor at that time and was somewhat familiar with this property as I have always been interested in trees, particularly the Valley Oak, since I was a small boy. During my childhood, we used to go for a Sunday ride after church dinner and often drove by this area. In the summer, the “swamp” always felt so much cooler than urban Visalia’s temperature. This property is typical of the original oak forests ranging along the Four Creeks of the Kaweah River, with Deep Creek and other native streams meandering through it.
The Farm Advisor’s office is an educational function of the University of California, originally set up in the Land Grant Colleges to work with and advise farmers. We had office days at the direction of our County Director and on one of those days the office secretary told me there was a young lady there to see me -- Myrtle Franklin of Pebble Beach, California.
Myrtle informed me that she had just inherited the 324 acre Davis property when her mother passed away. Myrtle was interested in developing the property for farming, instead of using it for grazing as her family had done. She had come to me for advice, probably because of her cousin, Everett Welch, who was a friend, and because I was a native of the county and a long-time agriculturalist.
Myrtle wanted to plant walnuts. I told her that was not a good choice because the water table was too high – only about 8 feet below the soil surface and walnuts are subject to “wet feet” (disease) from too high of a water table. She asked what she could plant and I suggested field crops such as cotton, corn, alfalfa, etc. I emphasized this would entail a lot of work and expense – water wells, pipelines, leveling, tree removal, and more. But, nevertheless, she was determined to farm that land. Knowing the property, I asked her if she had ever considered selling it to preserve such a beautiful, natural area. She said she was “definitely not interested."
Several weeks later, Myrtle surprised me. She came back to see me and said she might be interested in selling. To farm it would be a big investment and a lot of headaches. To preserve it would be a possible tax advantage.
Knowing one of the Nature Conservancy (TNC) Directors in Delano, Jack Zaninovich, I immediately called him for advice on whom to contact. Jack told me that the timing was perfect as the Conservancy was embarking on a California Critical Areas program with 11 natural areas they were especially interested in preserving. One area was Valley Oak woodland.
On Jack’s advice, I contacted Steve McCormick in San Francisco. He was the Chairman of the Critical Areas acquisitions project. Steve was excited and made a hurried visit to Visalia. I showed him the property and then arranged for a friend to fly him over it, as well. It was love at first sight -- exactly what the Conservancy had in mind, according to Steve.
After Steve’s visit, I arranged for Myrtle to go to San Francisco to meet with him. Steve told me later that they had the door closed to his office for several hours and his staff was beginning to wonder what was going on.
It took awhile, but they had agreed on the next step. Steve and Myrtle, independently, had the property appraised. Unfortunately, the appraisals came in many dollars apart. I assured Myrtle that if she would stick with me, I would make sure she got a fair price. Being involved in agriculture, I knew about land values. Negotiations continued, but the parties remained far apart on the value of the property.
I urged Steve not to let this property get away, as the Nature Conservancy would never have a better chance to buy such a property to preserve.
After several months of negotiations, they came to an agreement, at last. Myrtle would sell the land to the Conservancy and the Conservancy would help Myrtle tax-wise on the sale and on another property investment.
Steve phoned me from San Francisco with the thrilling news: “The Kaweah Oaks Preserve is yours!" The price was $1,010,000, or about $3,000 an acre. The Nature Conservancy put a person on the property to inventory its assets and to work with some of us locals to help raise funds to offset their investment. (Typically, the Nature Conservancy acquires a critical area and often several years later turns it over to another organization or agency to manage and maintain.)
Before all this happened, I was in line to become the President of the Tulare County Historical Society. At one of the Board meetings, one of our Directors, Max Cochran, told me he had a project in mind when I became President. I told him, I, too, had one – the replacement of the Pioneer statue at Mooney’s Grove Park that had crashed during a small earthquake. Max was a former County Schools Superintendent and a strong environmentalist. His idea was to preserve the “Swamp” which, ultimately, was to become the Kaweah Oaks Preserve.
Talk about a jigsaw puzzle. When all the foregoing happened with Mrytle Franklin, Max’s idea came out better than mine; the whole project was really his idea. I happened to be in the Farm Advisor’s office at the right time to follow through on his idea. Together, we established a lifetime bonding with 324 acres of native oaks woodland.
P.S. Steve McCormick moved up to become President of the California Nature Conservancy and later became Chairman of the National Nature Conservancy in Washington D.C.
Myrtle told me, at the dedication of the Kaweah Oaks Preserve, on May 15, 1983, that preserving this area was one of the most exciting things she had done in her life. When I retired in 1984, Myrtle took my wife, JoAnn, and me out for dinner to thank me for what I had done. With part of the proceeds from the sale of Kaweah Oaks, Myrtle bought some property on the Rogue River in Oregon. As for the people in Tulare County, we were happy she did not carry out her original idea of farming this treasure.
[In a drive organized by Alan George, the people of Tulare and Kings Counties raised over $100,000 through community donations to help The Nature Conservancy pay for the land that became Kaweah Oaks Preserve.]