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What we lost in the wildfires

It’s going to take a long time to recover from the fires.

The fire burned through the heart of the Lost Pines area, a unique ecological island encompassing some 64,000 acres of loblolly pine, the westernmost stands of the great pine forest originally carpeting the southeastern United States.

Incinerated, too, was the largest single tract of remaining habitat of the Houston toad, an endangered amphibian whose survival is tied to the habitat beneath the pine canopy.

Much of that Houston toad habitat sat on 6,000-acre Bastrop State Park, one of the oldest, most popular and profitable Texas parks. All but about 100 acres of the tract was consumed by the fire.

The park, which opened in 1937, has been “a real diamond in our system,” said Mike Cox, spokesman for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It attracts up to a quarter-million visitors a year, placing it in the top 10 most visited sites in the 95-unit state park system, and has been one of only a handful of state parks that generated more visitor revenue than it cost to run.

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How, when and even if the three recover to anything like their pre-fire status remains uncertain.

“The amount of destruction, to humans and the land … I’m stunned and shocked at the scale of it,” said Michael Forstner, a Texas State University biology professor and expert on the Houston toad who has spent time in the burned areas over the past week.

“It’s an incredible loss to Texas on many levels. On a personal level, it’s like losing an old friend,” Claire Williams, distinguished scholar at the Forest History Society at Duke University and a former professor of forestry at Texas A&M University, said about the Lost Pines’ forest.

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Whatever way the forest regenerates – from intense plantings by humans or natural regeneration – it will be many years before the area resembles the Lost Pines that generations of Texans enjoyed and on which generations of Houston toads depended.

“It takes 10 to 15 years for a (pine) seedling to begin bearing,” Williams said. It takes 30 years or more for a pine, which can live as long as 300 to 400 years, to reach the size of what most consider a modestly “mature” tree.

“It’ll be decades before we know all the impacts of this fire on the Lost Pines,” Forstner said. “Nature is resilient. But, right now, it’s a very real tragedy for everybody and everything it touched.”

It’s all very sad. You wish there was something you could do to help, but there isn’t. Whatever healing there is will happen on its own, and on its own schedule.

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