BASTROP (AP) - From a hilltop known as “The Scenic Outlook,” Nicholas McClendon scanned thousands of acres of Central Texas until he spotted something familiar: the green crown of a pine tree.
“That used to be the view, green treetops,” the Bastrop-area man said. “Now it’s not.”
A green speck peeking over the black expanse of tall barren sticks is one of the few trees that survived a firestorm one year ago this weekend at Bastrop State Park, where historic wildfires claimed 95 percent of the trees, including most of the 6,600-acre park’s signature “Lost Pines.”
State wildlife officials and others are working on restoring the forest but acknowledge it will take plenty of manpower, time and money to succeed. The project calls for planting some 2 million seedlings to replace the charred foliage in the park, another 2 million on thousands of acres outside the park and more than $4 million to pay for them.
“You hear about the damage, but you don’t realize how much really is gone until you see it,” Gary Stephens, of Spring, said after driving around the park to set up his RV at a campsite that had survived the inferno that started during Labor Day weekend last year. “It’s just amazing. It’s changed the landscape of this park for at least a generation.”
Foresters say it could be at least 30 years before the park less than an hour’s drive east of Austin and known for its forest resembles one.
One bright spot has been the discovery of “Lost Pine” seeds that apparently were stored unknowingly more than two decades ago in a cooler at a grocery warehouse in Lufkin in East Texas, said Bill Oates, a regional forester for the Texas Forest Service. It’s hoped seedlings from that genetically pure source will provide at least the first 25,000 new plantings.
A batch of several hundred seedlings about 6 inches tall and growing in black plastic tube containers was brought to the park last week to receive a ceremonial hand-watering from top officials of the parks and forestry agencies. The first plantings won’t take place until next February when weather is more ideal and will focus on the west side of the park.
“That will be a big day,” Jamie Hackett, the park superintendent, said. “Every step we face is a positive healing for the people in this park and in this county.”
About 160,000 visitors a year traditionally have made the state park one of Texas’ most popular. Attendance figures had slipped before the fires last year when record high temperatures and a persistent drought not only contributed to the fire danger but kept people from outdoor activities. While park attendance is not yet at levels of years past, it has exceeded last year’s drought-impacted figures as visitors return to see how the park now looks, Hackett said.
“I can’t tell you how important it is to keep the trees and visitors coming in here,” Jim Wither, the Bastrop County judge, said. “We particularly want to keep the economy moving and the trees that will be replanted will certainly help along those lines.”
The park has been known for its unique stand of loblolly pines related to but genetically different from the great East Texas pine forest that extends into the Southeastern United States. According to the Texas Historical Association, the pines were believed part of an ancient forest that shrank during or after the Ice Age. Spanish explorers described it in 1691, and the area that’s now the state park was part of the original 1832 land grant to Stephen F. Austin’s first colony.
Extensive logging took place in the later 1800s and when land for the park was acquired, the Civilian Conservation Corps built cabins and other park facilities during the Great Depression that still are used today. Except for a couple shelters that lost wood roofs, the historically significant CCC-built structures were saved from the blaze, which was among some 500 that raced across drought-parched Texas last year. Foresters estimate the trees lost in Bastrop were about 80 years old.
Replacing them won’t be easily done on state funds alone. With state money tight and some $3 million already spent on repairs, removal of debris and other projects, the Arbor Day Foundation is taking the lead on fundraising efforts for the new trees, said Carter Smith, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department executive director.
Visitors and state officials are both looking forward to restoring the forest.
“We’re through looking back,” said Tom Boggus, a Texas A&M Forest Service state forester. “We’re looking forward. And that’s what planting a seedling is all about.”
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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