Many farmers wouldn’t be thrilled about a beaver dam flooding a portion of their land, but George Kral doesn’t see it as a problem.
Though Kral acknowledges the beaver dam and surrounding wetlands are a significant sacrifice of property at his Scholls Valley Native Nursery, he said they provide tangible benefits to the land.
Before the beaver inhabited the stream on Kral’s nursery, it often consisted of a trickle of water. Now, the dam slows down and retains water on the property, resulting in perennial flows and perennial ponds.
“They push water into places you’d never imagine,” Kral said. “The whole landscape is re-watered.”
Kral has dedicated more than a third of the 60-acre property near Gales Creek, Ore., to a conservation easement, which limits his ability to fully use or develop the land.
Returning that acreage to a natural state does provide a valuable resource to the nursery in the form of seeds and cuttings from native plants, which are the company’s specialty.
Scholls Valley Native Nursery raises about 140 species of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, including sedges and rushes that are adapted to wet meadows, marshes and swamps.
While conventional farmers have generally bred for consistency in crops — such as ensuring uniform ripening — Kral focuses on producing plants for genetic diversity, which is necessary for them to survive challenging conditions.
“We grow plants to fend for themselves,” he said.
The company collects seeds that mature at different times from a variety of locations, then plants them to directly grow nursery stock or for cutting blocks that will produce scions for rooting.
This process can generate plants that would normally be considered runts, but which can actually be more durable in tough circumstances.
For example, an acorn may sprout a white oak that grows 18 inches in a year while its sibling may achieve just six inches in height, Kral said.
The taller tree would normally be considered superior, but its vigorous growth may prove unsustainable in thin soil that’s adequate for the more compact oak, he said. “It’s just a more conservative growth habit.”
Maintaining a diverse genetic base will be increasingly important as climate change pushes up average Northwest temperatures in the coming decades, Kral said.
According to data analyzed by Kral, the average August temperature in Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley is now roughly 5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in the 1940s.
At this point, the mid-Willamette Valley has a higher average temperature in August than the Umpqua Valley — a traditionally warmer climate — more than seven decades ago, he said. “That’s a huge shift.”
The change is evident with two native West Coast species, white alder and red alder, in experiments Kral has conducted at several elevations.
The white alder, a historically northerly tree, is dying at the warmer, low-elevation sites while continuing to survive at higher elevations.
Meanwhile, the red alder, a southerly species, is thriving on the Willamette Valley floor.
For the Scholls Valley Native Nursery, the problem isn’t just an abstraction: Kral expects to start growing a different mix of native species that will remain viable in the climate of the future.
He’s written an article advising customers — often government entities and nonprofit institutions that conduct habitat restoration — they’ll need to be flexible in their product selections as temperatures rise.
“Managing natural resources is inherently dynamic,” Kral said. “You better be ready to change course or you’re going to hit a wall.”
Trained as a forester, Kral’s early experience with the nursery industry was as a federal employee charged with managing contracts for purchasing trees needed for reforestation.
Kral went on to work for the City of Portland, helping private landowners restore riparian habitats, which eventually led him to start his own landscape management and reforestation company.
The dearth of native species available for commercial sale at the time convinced Kral to begin growing his own, which evolved into the nursery he founded in 2003.
“I encountered the challenge of not finding the stuff I wanted to work with,” he said. “It’s like trying to build a house and all you get is bricks.”