Not far from Austin, a 13-mile-wide forest has provided an inviting getaway for many Texans for decades. Sturdy loblolly pines there soared 30-plus-feet skyward, the airy space between them offering a visual counterpoint to the dense, sprawling oaks and other trees in nearby forest and in Texas' capital city 30 miles to the west.
Known as the Lost Pines, the forest rests in thick sand that may have drifted from the Colorado River. The evergreens in rolling hills withstood a Central Texas drying trend over millennia thanks to a clay layer below the sand that captures moisture from local aquifers. But wildfires in the Bastrop County area during the 2011 drought burned 33,000 acres of the landlocked beach, destroying homes and turning more than a million loblollies into lifeless, soot-coated stalks.
The Wildflower Center has served as the nursery this year for a graduate student project to grow 60,000 replacement trees that are beginning to be distributed to Bastrop County residents. And now the Center is gearing up to grow more than 10 times that many loblollies as a contractor for the Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS).
The center, part of The University of Texas at Austin (UT), will expand its growing operation as one of three contractors charged with producing 6 million trees total by 2017 to regenerate public and private lands in the Lost Pines. They will do so as participants in the Bastrop County Community Reforestation Program. "The Lost Pines is such a unique area, and our goal is to help restore it to the amazing landscape it once was," says Damon Waitt, the Center's senior director.
The Wildflower Center will raise 700,000 loblolly saplings in the next two years for the first part of the five-year growing program funded by the Arbor Day Foundation. Based on the Center's Austin location, it will be the local loblolly grower for the Reforestation Program.
"The Wildflower Center is conveniently located for project partners to access the pines we grow the day before a planting event," Waitt says. "We can also serve as a holding area for trees grown by the facilities that aren't near Bastrop County."
Seeds the TFS collected from Lost Pines loblollies years ago will be used because the region's trees have evolved to be more drought-tolerant than their nearest neighbors: East Texas loblollies about 100 miles away (the Central Texas stand may have separated off from their Piney Woods counterparts during the last Ice Age).
To prepare for the growing project at the center, Nursery Manager Sean Watson and other center staff are nearly doubling the size of the Tree Nursery to 7,200 square feet. Shade structures and underground irrigation will be added for the saplings. A part-time arborist will also be hired to nurture them in their individual containers.
The center has allocated $70,000 in start-up costs for the beefed up growing project and will be reimbursed for trees grown once they begin to be distributed. As a result, Waitt notes that the Center has been especially appreciative of contributions from South Texas Money Management, Ltd., and Austin resident Claire McAdams to help offset the up-front growing operation costs. Volunteer helpers will also be needed to plant seeds this spring and to prepare saplings for distribution late in 2013.
Wildflower Center volunteers have already helped with the current tree distribution project led by molecular biology graduate student Vlad Codrea at UT's College of Natural Sciences. Codrea received a $54,000 university grant to fund the initial project that has begun providing 35,000 Loblolly pines, Montezuma cypress and other trees to Bastrop residents. The grant came from the university's Green Fee Committee. In addition, the Wildflower Center contributed $22,000 from a fundraiser Balcones Recycling held for the center for this initial version of the Reforestation Program.
Other partners in the Bastrop County Community Reforestation Program include TreeFolks, Bastrop County and their Sherriff's Office, Bowman Consulting, American YouthWorks Texas Conservation Corps, the Apache Foundation, the Arbor Day Foundation, the Lost Pines Recovery Team, H-E-B, and McCoy's Building Supply.
To learn about on-site loblolly pine volunteer opportunities and other volunteer options at the Wildflower Center, visit: http://www.wildflower.org/volunteer/.
Story by Barbra A. Rodriguez