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From the Ashes - Winter 2013Written By Gail Folkins Photographed by Joe Marcus and TREEFOLKS, Except Where Noted
Above: Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) seedlings that will replace those affected by the devastating 2011 Bastrop County Complex Fire get their start in a Wildflower Center nursery.
ROWS OF SLIM-NEEDLED loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) seedlings are packed in at a Wildflower Center tree yard. Bound for Bastrop County in Central Texas, 350,000 seedlings originating from the Lost Pines region and grown in this tree yard will help replace forested acreage burned in the 2011 Bastrop County Complex Fire that occurred on Labor Day weekend.
The Wildflower Center will grow double that number of pines over two years and is the local tree grower selected by the Texas A&M Forest Service to help restore wildfire-damaged Bastrop County.
Fueled by extreme drought and high wind gusts, the massive fire – more destructive than any wildfire in Texas history – caused evacuations, destroyed more than 1,600 Bastrop County homes and took two lives. The burn scar of the fire covered more than 30,000 acres of the Lost Pines region. Of this area, the fire burned more than 16,200 acres of loblolly pine and deciduous hardwood forests, including 5,000 acres of Bastrop State Park.
While the park had initiatives in place to restore the loblolly pines, there was no program established to assist private owners of approximately 12,000 forested acres – the majority of land impacted by the fire. The intense heat of the fire depleted soil nutrients and scorched the loblolly pine cones and seeds, decreasing the likelihood that this unique pine – a droughtresistant subset of an East Texas species – would regenerate on its own. Erosion, soil loss and an ongoing drought further contributed to the need for a full recovery effort.
In late 2012, TreeFolks, an Austin-based nonprofit organization devoted to urban forestry practices, was asked by the Texas A&M Forest Service to take the lead in creating a partnership between public and private entities that would help these landowners. The resulting Bastrop County Community Reforestation Program (BCCRP), part of the Lost Pines Recovery Team, provides landowners with loblolly pine replanting. In addition, the Arbor Day Foundation, American Forests, ALCOA, Apache Corporation, H-E-B and Bastrop County have lent a hand to the program, ensuring seedlings and replanting are available at no cost to landowners. Other Lost Pines Recovery Team members provide services relating to erosion control, tree removal and wildlife habitat. And, of course, the Wildflower Center assists by growing some of the seedlings for planting.
The Wildflower Center’s growing operation began when it worked with a university graduate student to provide affected residents with 35,000 trees in early 2012. Later it became one of three Texas A&M Forest Service contractors that will produce up to 4.5 million trees by 2017 for replanting in the Lost Pines region.
Wildflower Center Senior Director and Senior Botanist Damon Waitt, Ph.D., says, “The Wildflower Center is conveniently located for project partners to access the pines we grow before a planting event. As the grower closest to Bastrop County, we can serve as the on-demand source for trees compared to the facilities that aren’t nearby.”
According to TreeFolks’ program manager Carly Blankenship, during the program’s first year TreeFolks replanted 68,000 loblolly pines and mixed hardwoods on 180 acres within 54 parcels, with help from Texas Conservation Corps’Americorps members and 250 community tree planters. “We are on track to plant more than 2 million trees within five years,” Blankenship says.
Bastrop landowners Roy and Pamela Smallwood were among the first landowners to participate in the loblolly pine replanting effort. The couple, avid campers in the Lost Pines, had moved to the Bastrop area from Waco 18 months prior to the fire. During Labor Day Weekend 2011, they initially mistook the dark skies for a thundercloud. After the electricity went out, the couple drove to a street corner to gain a better perspective on what they now realized was smoke. Meeting other neighbors, they learned everyone had half an hour to evacuate the area.
After making their way out of the neighborhood in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the Smallwoods waited out the fire, hoping to return in a matter of hours. Their wait stretched to 10 days instead, and given the footprint of the fire, they were fairly certain they’d lost everything. Once they were allowed to return home, a barren landscape awaited them. “The only thing standing was the fireplace,” Pamela says. Ash covered the ground like snow, punctuated with trees turned to black sticks.
The couple spent the next several months debating their next move, considering whether to stay or relocate out of the area. “We spent six months looking elsewhere,” Pamela says. Given the drought conditions in Central Texas, they couldn’t help but look at each forested option – regardless of location – and think, “This will burn next summer.”
Soon after, the couple decided to return to their land in Bastrop. “Someone needed to make an effort toward replanting and rejuvenation,” Roy says of their change of heart. “Even if it takes 20 years and we may not see it, our children will enjoy it.”
After Roy and Pamela became one of TreeFolks’ first properties in early 2013, the organization planted 1,047 loblolly seedlings on the Smallwood’s two acres. “Restoring our landscape has been healing,” Pamela says. “We enjoyed getting our hands dirty, planting native plants, and attracting birds and butterflies.”
As they designed their new space, the couple added other native plants and trees and kept fire prevention in mind, ensuring their house had the recommended 30 feet of defensible space between the home and the surrounding wildland area. “We don’t have trees next to the house,” Roy says.
After a successful first year responding to individuals such as Roy and Pamela Smallwood, TreeFolks’ goal for year two of their replanting initiative is providing 780,000 trees on more than 1,500 acres within 240 parcels. More than 1,000 community volunteers and tree vendors will participate in this process during the Central Texas growing season, which began in early November and extends through mid-February 2014.
Fighting Fire with FireCombating massive wildfires with “good” fire – or prescribed burns designed to mimic natural phenomena such as lightning storms – can reduce the impact and intensity of crown fires that are so hot and high up in the trees that they become difficult to control. “fire will play a primary role in reducing uncontrollable fire,” says Jim rooni, chief regional forester and department head of central operations for the Texas a&m forest service. “Controlled fire can be extremely beneficial.”
The wildflower Center has set aside 70 acres to study the impact of fire on native plants and landscapes, using prescribed fire as a landscape management tool. mark simmons, Ph. d., ecologist and director of research and consulting for the Center, says past tendencies to suppress fires have resulted in amassed fuel loads sparking devastating wildfires.
“we live in a landscape driven by natural fire,” simmons says. Prescribed fires can produce an increase in non-woody native vegetation such as wildflowers, improve habitat for many animals and remove some invasive non-native plants.
at the wildflower Center, the careful boundary of an august prescribed burn blackens the ground. safety measures for the burn included ensuring ideal weather conditions, and numerous wildflower Center and austin fire department personnel were present. as the boundaries between wild lands and urban sites blur, finding a safe method for burning is an important consideration in mitigating wildfires, simmons says. for private landowners, rooni describes a burn co-op option, with owners teaming up with agencies, volunteers and local fire departments to conduct safe and effective prescribed burns.
In addition to the Wildflower Center, other providers (including the states of Louisiana and Oklahoma and ArborGen, a private nursery in East Texas) have contributed nursery space, time and labor to grow the loblolly pine seedlings. The seeds from these pines, which originated from the Lost Pines region and served as a research project, were kept in storage in a Lufkin freezer. Housed there since the mid-’90s, the seed, which has a germination rate today of 98 percent, was slated for disposal around the time of the fire, a plan that was abandoned just in time. “It’s completely fortuitous the seeds were available,” says Waitt. “The Lost Pines is such a unique area ecologically, and the trees there are more drought-tolerant than loblolly pines in East Texas, so we are thrilled to have this seed source to work with.”
Left: Loblolly pine seedlings that will help repopulate private land in Bastrop County are packed into a Wildflower Center shadehouse.
Preparing for a growing project this large and unprecedented for the Center was no simple task. Nursery Manager Sean Watson and other Center staff are nearly doubling the size of the Center’s Tree Nursery to 7,200 square feet. Shade structures and underground irrigation have been added for the saplings and a part-time arborist hired to nurture them in their individual containers.
At its start, the relatively small operation funded by the University of Texas at Austin’s Green Fee Committee and the proceeds of a small fundraiser held by Balcones Recycling allowed university graduate student Vlad Codrea to see that many Bastrop residents were helped. It has grown 10 times and become a prime example of how the Wildflower Center applies its expertise and partners with other organizations to solve environmental problems.
The efforts of public and private interests have brought back many loblolly pines – some of which already stand 3 to 5 feet tall. Blankenship notes the survival rate will depend on the area’s natural rate of rainfall. With persistent drought conditions in the West and an increasing intersection of urban and rural areas, agencies will continue to pursue both wildfire control and streamlining of recovery efforts in their aftermath. The Lost Pines Recovery Team and its blend of local, state and federal agencies has already served as a model for fire recovery efforts in New Mexico, according to Blankenship.
“When our program began, we were unaware of any reforestation plans specifically designed for this many small-acreage landowners,” Blankenship says. “As the nation’s drought continues and wildfires increase near highly developed subdivisions, our scope of work may be a model for similar relief efforts nationwide.”
Wildfires in the West
Photo by marekuliasz/shutterstock Sometimes recovery comes quickly on its own. after a march wildfire in Galena, west of Fort collins, colorado, grasses had begun to grow again, as shown in this picture taken in april. yucca were still scorched.
brush build-up and fire suppression have fueled many uncontrollable fires, which are also increasing in their frequency. Joel sankey, a research geologist with the usGs in the southwest biological science center and the Grand canyon monitoring and research center, says that in addition to larger fires, the window for these fires has broadened. “the timing of fires appears to be changing as well in many areas, with more early- and late-season fires, [essentially a longer window of time each year over which fires occur].”
For more information or to participate in an upcoming planting, visit www.bastroprecovery.org.