Caitlyn Cooper scrambled through clingy underbrush and over felled husks of dead pines, making for a sapling with brilliant green needles.
Cooper has been studying the sapling and its immediate surroundings since late spring 2015, trying to determine how the trees and soil have recovered from the wildfire that raged through Bastrop State Park a little more than five years ago. She picked the spot because it is one of the heavily burned portions of the Lost Pines forest — an area where the gray remains of scorched pines still tower over the landscape. Beneath those skeletal figures, saplings are beginning to give a hint of renewed vitality.
On a recent Friday, Cooper finished her graduate studies at Texas A&M University by packing away the wires and equipment with which she has monitored the 707-square-meter patch of forest. Her findings and those of fellow researchers do not bode well for the loblolly pines — a crucial piece of Bastrop County’s character to many who live there.
The pines aren’t in danger of being wiped out, according to Cooper and other researchers. But in broad swaths of forest, the fires appears to have tipped the balance in favor of post oaks and blackjack oaks, which are better adapted to spring back from the charred ground.
Those oaks aren’t unique to the area, unlike the pines, which are genetically distinct from their cousins to the east. The pines are also habitat for several animal species, including the endangered Houston toad.
“If we have a drought that goes on long enough,” Cooper said, “it could kill” the young pines.
The work of Cooper and her fellow A&M researchers is part of a broader effort commissioned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Five years in, that effort is beginning to wind down, said Greg Creacy, a wildland fire coordinator with the department. More information should be coming soon on the plants, animals, soils and other aspects of the forest, knowledge that will help the state determine how to proceed in Bastrop and Buescher state parks, as well as other parts of the Lost Pines, he said.
The research has already underscored the need for more careful forest management, including allowing periodic, carefully controlled burns that help head off catastrophic fires, Creacy said.
“We view the 2011 fire as an unnatural event that happened because of unnatural circumstances,” Creacy said. “And that creates some tricky decisions.”
Preserving cultural identity
Georgianne Moore, Cooper’s Ph.D. adviser, teaches her students that the natural world is ever-changing, and that trying to halt its forward march is as pointless as trying to freeze time itself.
“There is no static, ideal assemblage of plants,” said Moore, a professor in A&M’s Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. Her point: It isn’t preordained that the Lost Pines should exist in such vast numbers.
Still, some find their diminished state dismaying.
“The pine forest is a very significant part of our cultural identity,” Bastrop Mayor Ken Kesselus said.
No one is certain how the Lost Pines came to be. The loblollys are genetically similar, but distinct, from the vast swaths of the Piney Woods that cover East Texas, making the Bastrop trees like a lost tribe. Hence the name. One theory holds that the 13-mile-wide, 75,000-acre swath is a holdover from an ancient, much larger forest — one that perhaps covered Central Texas and almost entirely died off during the Pleistocene ice age.
When 19th-century settlers arrived, the Lost Pines provided plenty of wood to build a fast-growing city just to the west (Austin). Between 1933 and 1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps built Bastrop and Buescher state parks in the Lost Pines, restoring portions of the woods that had been logged, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Within the huge parks, 25.5 percent of the surface was covered by the pines in 1949. By 1995, 37.2 percent was covered by the pines, according to the historical association.
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Trial by fire
But in September 2011, amid the hardest Central Texas drought on record, three separate wildfires merged into the Bastrop County Complex Fire, the most destructive conflagration in Texas history. It burned for nearly two months, resulting in two deaths and 1,673 destroyed homes.
Of the 75,000 acres of Lost Pines forest, 33,284 burned in the fire. Of that, 11,527 acres were heavily burned, according to the Parks and Wildlife Department. The fire also destroyed an estimated 96 percent of Bastrop State Park.
High winds stoked the fire. But fire officials and ecologists say people were a major factor. The forest, in its natural state, would be periodically swept by fires that burn away the underbrush. But people, concerned for their homes, largely put a stop to those fires. That practice allowed dried-out fuels to accumulate.
Such a fire hadn’t swept through the region in at least 400-odd years, judging by the evidence from the oldest of the pines, Creacy said. The Parks and Wildlife Department identified the wildfire danger years ago and in 2002 began conducting controlled burns in Bastrop State Park. But such burns are tricky, Creacy said, with matters as vital as keeping the fires contained and as seemingly small (and yet important) as ensuring the smoke doesn’t choke the people living in the area.
Obviously, the controlled burns did little to slow the 2011 blaze.
“You can’t undo a century of fire suppression in 10 years,” Creacy said.
Challenged by oaks, drought
Volunteers have planted 1.8 million new pines since that fire. But only so much can be done, Creacy said. Many of the efforts are winding down, and continuing the controlled burns is the single most important task to continue, Creacy said.
That conclusion was buoyed by Cooper’s work. It suggests that in the two-thirds of the fire’s footprint that wasn’t heavily burned, the pines are doing much better. But in the heavily burned areas — about a third of the fire’s footprint — a different story appears to be emerging.
There, oak saplings have grown back by relying on deep, established root systems that survived the fires. The pines, by contrast, started from scratch. This summer revealed the importance of those root systems, Cooper said. During last year’s month-and-a-half-long minidrought, the oaks on the property she has been studying sucked away much of the water in the ground.
The young pines suffered. Only a wet fall and winter restored them to health.
Their continued health probably depends on whether Central Texas continues seeing wet weather in the coming years, Moore said. If the sky continues delivering rain — the last two years have been unusually wet — the sprouting pines have a fighting chance and might even push back the oaks.
But if another drought settles in before the pines can establish hardy, adult root systems, Moore said, “they’ll be in trouble.”