October rains should help seedlings; last year’s crop had high mortality rate because of drought.
Monday, Dec. 2, 2013
By Dave Harmon – American-Statesman Staff
BASTROP — When Ray Long saw a flood of people pour out of the two big tour buses parked near his house last week, he wandered down the street to investigate.
He watched dozens of people in matching green shirts and yellow hard hats planting pine seedlings on 8 treeless acres east of Bastrop. They’d come to Austin from across the U.S. and Canada for a Kampgrounds of America convention and volunteered to help TreeFolks, an Austin nonprofit, start a new forest on brothers Steve and Michael Keselik’s adjoining properties.
TreeFolks volunteer Phillip Scott holds a handful of loblolly pine seedlings. (Deborah Cannon photo)
“This is a godsend, having these folks come out here and re-establish this (forest),” said Long, who rebuilt his house after it burned in the 2011 Bastrop Complex Fire.
Tree planting season has begun in Bastrop County, where the skeletons of more than a million trees killed by the wildfire still loom over everything. It’s the second year of the reforestation effort, and the goal is to put 1.5 million pine trees in the ground this winter — roughly three times more than last winter.
Using native loblolly pine seeds that the Texas A&M Forest Service had stashed in an East Texas grocery cooler, TreeFolks, Bastrop State Park, the Forest Service and others plan to plant 4 million seedlings in Bastrop County over five years — half of them in the park. Private foundations have pledged to pay nurseries to grow the trees, which are being given to the park and landowners at no cost.
Volunteers hoped to plant 2,000 to 3,000 loblolly pine seedlings on 8 acres in Bastrop County earlier this month. (Deborah Cannon photo)
Most of the seedlings planted last winter didn’t survive their first year. They were planted in parched soil — Bastrop County was in moderate to severe drought all winter — that in many places had been stripped of topsoil by erosion from post-fire rains. Texas leaf-cutting ants also killed an untold number by snipping off their needles, said Mike Fisher, the county’s emergency management director.
In Bastrop State Park, an estimated 13 percent of the 250,000 seedlings from last winter survived, said Jamie Hackett, superintendent for Bastrop and Buescher state parks. “Which sounds all doom and gloom,” she said, “but we don’t see it like that; we learned a lot.” One big lesson: planting in sandy soil during a drought means high mortality rates.
TreeFolks, which received a contract from Bastrop County to replant private land, saw a 41 percent survival rate for the 68,000 trees it planted last winter on 104 privately owned acres around the county, said program manager Carly Blankenship. That was about what they expected, she said.
From left, Mike Booth and Elizabeth Kitay plant loblolly pine seedlings in Bastrop County. (Deborah Cannon photo)
“It was the first year of everything, so it was kind of fly by the seat of your pants,” she said, adding that more of their seedlings were planted in clay or rocky soils, which held moisture better.
The pine seeds are sown in nurseries a year before they are planted, and officials planned for five consecutive planting seasons because they knew that some years would be too hot or too dry for many seedlings to survive.
Heavy October rains have them optimistic about this winter’s crop.
“This year, there’s at least moisture in the soil, and that’s a big advantage,” said Dan Pacatte, TreeFolks’ reforestation coordinator.
TreeFolks plans to plant 780,000 trees on 175 to 200 properties this winter, and all of this year’s seedlings are spoken for, Pacatte said, adding that landowners already are signing up for next year’s seedlings.
That’s still a tiny portion of the private land that burned in the fire, which scorched more than 33,000 acres and destroyed more than 1,700 homes and other structures. To restore the Lost Pines — a unique pocket of loblollies separated from the East Texas Piney Woods by more than 100 miles — Pacatte said they’ll need a lot more landowners to plant pines, rather than letting post oak and yaupon take over.
“There’s people who went through the fire who don’t want pines; they’re scared (of another fire),” he said.
The challenge is equally large at Bastrop State Park, where 96 percent of the 5,926-acre park burned in the fire. But the logistics are easier because it’s a single piece of state-owned land that can be re-planted in large swaths.
On a Friday afternoon last month, Hackett, the parks superintendent, pulled off a park road and walked through one of the areas planted last winter. Amid the fallen remains of dead trees and a rising carpet of grasses and weeds, faded plastic flags marked the locations of the year-old seedlings.
Some had shot up to a height of about 2 feet; others were struggling to reach a foot tall. Still others were brown and dead.
Even though nearly 9 out of 10 pines planted last winter died, she calls the effort “a great success” because of the determination people have shown to restore the pine forest.
“People were just hungry to help out and put that tree in the ground,” she said. “It was very much a learning year for us.”
This winter, they’ll plant 400,000 trees on 650 acres, concentrating on Park Road 1C, the scenic corridor that connects Bastrop and Buescher state parks. A vendor is doing much of the planting, but the park also is planning 20 volunteer planting days this winter, she said.
The planting is being paid for with some of the $4.9 million the Legislature approved this year for the park’s fire recovery effort.
Hackett said new pines have sprouted naturally in areas that escaped the most intense heat. But they’ve lost some mature trees that survived the fire to pine bark beetles, which attack trees weakened by drought and fire. Park workers have treated 80 mature trees with an insecticide that repels the beetles, she said.
Back on the Keselik brothers’ land, Mercedes Hemmer from New Hampshire and Chenae Stump from Washington state — who both work at KOA campgrounds — planted seedlings side-by-side.
“It looks like it was devastating,” said Stump, 29. “I want to come back in a few years to see the progress.”