Group Plans Fund-Raising Effort to Preserve Oaks : Environment: Program will allow donors to dedicate groves, grasslands or trees in Malibu Creek State Park.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Citing successful efforts to save redwood groves in Northern California, a conservation group Wednesday launched a campaign to use private charitable donations to preserve and restore the ancient oaks that once symbolized the Southern California landscape.

Under the shade of a pair of century-old oaks in Malibu Creek State Park, about 85 conservationists, park officials and schoolchildren gathered to inaugurate Commemorative Oaks, a program that will allow donors to dedicate oak groves, native grasslands or individual trees to friends or loved ones.

"It's long overdue that we, here in Southern California, should recognize our landmark species," said Margot Feuer, vice president of the board of the Mountains Restoration Trust, a Malibu-based conservation group that will run the program. "Oaks are to us what redwoods are to Northern California."

The program initially will operate in Malibu Creek State Park, where donations will pay for habitat restoration and acquisition of neighboring lands. If successful, the effort could be expanded to other state parks in the Santa Monica Mountains, said Dan Preece, deputy regional director for the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

The program is patterned after those of the 75-year-old Save-the-Redwoods League and 92-year-old Sempervirens Fund, which uses the botanical name of the coast redwood. The groups together raise nearly $4 million a year by allowing donors to dedicate existing trees and entire groves in the name of friends or loved ones. The money is used to plant new trees and acquire more land for the redwood parks of Northern California.

Organizers of Commemorative Oaks said they have no idea how much money the program will raise.

However, they said they also plan to sell the campaign to donors as a way to honor major events, such as births and deaths, or as "the perfect gift for the person who has everything and wants nothing more," a written announcement said.

Jo Kitz, who is heading the project for the restoration trust, said there will be no commemorative signs in the park, because "too many of them start making the park look like a cemetery." But she said donors will be able to find their trees or groves on official park maps.

Although details are still being worked out, donors will be able to choose among three giving options. An entire commemorative grove will probably cost $10,000, she said. A "circle of life"--a small area of the park where species that are not indigenous will be uprooted and native grasses, wildflowers, oaks and other trees will be planted--will probably cost $5,000.

A gift of a single tree is expected to cost $200, according to Kitz, who said smaller gifts also will be accepted.

Although Malibu Creek contains many magnificent oaks within its 6,600 acres, countless more were destroyed for timber or by ranching, which also introduced exotic plant species that crowded out native plants.

Russ Guiney, Malibu sector superintendent for the state parks department, noted that one surviving oak is thought to be 700 years old. "We hope out of this will come trees that may last 700 years," he said.

Following the ceremony, pupils from three elementary school classes were each given a tiny oak to plant. Referring to the seedlings, Kitz said the youngsters in 50 years might return for a reunion, and "stand under the shade of these little guys. . . .

"What we are starting today is going to have to be finished by these young people, and their children, and their children's children," she said.

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