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Barona plants oaks in honor of anti-crime advocate

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LAKESIDE, Calif. - When anti-crime advocate Sam Knott's daughter, Cara, was murdered by a highway patrolman in 1986, he decided to honor her memory by planting oak trees in the area where her body was found.

Now that Knott himself passed away, the remaining oak saplings in his collection are being donated to the Barona Indian Reservation. Knott had a heart attack and died in December, ironically on almost the same spot where his daughter was killed.

He had said he felt strongly about California's heritage and thought the Native people of the Golden State were the best stewards for his oak saplings.

In a late February ceremony, members of the Knott family were greeted by Barona school children who sang songs upon their arrival. The children were presented with oak acorns collected by Knott as part of a cultural restoration project in which the children will learn how to properly plant the trees around their school and the tribal casino.

The Knotts donated 104 five-gallon and 10- to15-gallon Englemann and coast live oak saplings to the tribe. Kelly Speer, who works at the Barona casino and helped to organize the project, says the tribe felt this was a way to honor Knott's memory.

Thanks to Sam Knott's effort, a large grove of oaks now appears where Cara was murdered and the oaks donated to Barona will be planted in memory of both Cara and Sam. Knott's sister Jean Thompson was quoted as saying, "She (Cara) was an environmentalist. She would have liked this."

Tribal sources say they are pleased to be designated as recipients of the trees and say they feel it is appropriate since the tribe has been working on some large-scale oak restoration and mitigation projects on the reservation.

"Oak trees play a very important role in the history of California Native American Tribes," Barona tribal chairman Clifford LaChappa said in a press release.

The trees are part of an ongoing effort at Barona to restore and replace existing oaks on their land. The tribe hired an environmental restoration, mitigation and landscaping firm - Native Resources - to plant the oak trees on the property. The firm originally was hired to help move oak trees from Barona's golf course so they would not have to be cut down. Although California state law mandates that only 5 percent of the trees are allowed to die during a removal, not a single tree was lost.

Native Resources project director Mark Ritenour agreed to take on the Knott oaks as an extra service. The tribe will not be charged for the additional work.

Ritenour said he believes projects like these are extremely important. Much of California's original oak woodlands have been severely depleted since the arrival of the Spanish in the 1770s. The Englemann Oak has been particularly hard hit since its native growing range was restricted to a few small areas in the Southern California coastal hills.

The land on which Barona sits is a prime area for the Englemann oak and Ritenour says the tribe wants to do all it can to make sure their business enterprises do not impact the relatively rare tree.

Transplanting a mature oak tree is painstaking. A deep trench must be dug around the root base of the tree before the tree is excavated with a backhoe and lifted with a crane to be boxed and moved. The entire process can take as long as a month.

This kind of work is becoming increasingly important in California as a host of human activities continue to impact the state's remaining oak woodlands. Grazing, agriculture, development, invading grasses and disease have severely reduced the size and scope of the trees that were once the main food source for most of California's Indian tribes.

Ritenour says many other factors must be weighed before trees can be planted or transplanted. In the coastal hills of California, the landscape can vary widely over a small area depending on such factors as elevation, water availability and afternoon sun. He says oak trees cannot grow just anywhere and part of an overall environmental plan should take these factors into consideration when looking to add or move oaks in any given area.

"Folks like those at Barona are realizing that proper steps need to be taken so economic expansion will not adversely effect the amazing native resources they have. I can think of no better partnership than that of Native people and plants. I hope others will follow their lead."