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2011 Year in Review

Recall: Our lost Lost Pines

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Texas Trees, 385 million years

Texas Tree, a member of the Plant kingdom, died aged 385 million after severe drought, high winds, and the largest wildfires in the state's history swept the landscape. Trees had long served the need for shelter, lumber, and as nice natural areas to stroll meditatively through. Trees in Texas were known for hardiness and abundance, but mostly eschewed the showy color displays of their northeastern cousins. Texas Trees are survived by native seedlings, migratory birds, and invasive plants. In lieu of flowers, plant more trees.

Except where it serves as a reminder of our connection to, and dependence upon, nature, the incredible loss of trees this year was a total disaster. Certainly it lacks the drama and immediacy of those catastrophes that befall cities, but the damage to state ecosystems shouldn't slip from our collective news cycles so quickly. On the one hand it's hard to grasp the extent of the loss: Preliminary estimates out of the Texas Forest Service report that between 100 and 500 million trees died statewide (possibly representing 10 percent of our state forestland) from the year-long drought, while the Bastrop County Complex fire, considered the most destructive in state history, burned 34,000 acres, a loss of 1.5 million trees, or almost 80 percent of the total volume of trees in those forests. As trees provide a range of services, including erosion control, air purification, floodwater assistance, support of biological diversity, and more, the impact will be felt economically, according to Yanshu Li, an economist with the Texas Forest Service, whose team has begun to attempt to quantify the value of all the state's trees. (Georgia tabulated their forests, recently, reaching a figure upward of $25 billion — excluding the impact of the paper and lumber industry.) Though early yet, Li suggested the impact so far could be up to $2 billion in lost services.

The fires destroyed all but 50-100 acres of Bastrop State Park's nearly 6,000-acre territory and burned half of the Lost Pines Forest, a central-Texas colony of eastern loblolly pine trees. And where goes the habitat, so go the animals. Most notably the endangered Houston toad, which has enough problems with cars and predators, lost most of its habitat in those fires.

The question we all hem and haw around is just how responsible are we for these droughts and fires. Leaving aside the abundant research on our effects on the climate, we know that natural, essential, revitalizing fire cycles have been disrupted by cattle grazing, fire suppression, logging, and the esoteric effects of planting things like cities and highways. After this year, Texas should get smarter about statewide conservation and our relationship with the environment, if for no other reason than to avoid comparison to that wildfire mecca, California. Which would be hell on our pride.

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