UT students, other volunteers work to restore Bastrop’s Lost Pines

Tucker Whatley

UT volunteers are still working to restore the Bastrop Lost Pines forest to its former glory after fires ravaged most of its trees almost two years ago.

Students with the UT Campus Environment Center, an organization that uses a percentage of student tuition for ecologically-oriented projects, have partnered other local groups to replant trees in the area. Although many forests naturally recover from forest fires, officials say the Lost Pines cannot recover without human intervention because of its delicate ecosystem. Because not all of the Lost Pines forest is public, volunteers are also replanting trees on private land. 

Students are working with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Tree Folks, a nonprofit organization that works to plant trees in Central Texas parks and other public areas. In 2011, wildfires swept across Central Texas and destroyed many trees and property. 

“When you combine the two, the strong winds and the extremely-dry rain condition, you’re in for a disaster,” said Colton Stabeno, a Lost Pines Habitat Conservation administrator.  “It was sort of like the perfect storm.”

Vlad Codrea, a coordinator for the UT Campus Environment Center, said groups of up to 40 student and communtity volunteers will meet up to cultivate seedlings that will be planted in Bastrop. Volunteers will fill containers with soil and seeds and set them out in the sun and water them for several weeks before they send them off. 

In its first year, the program planted 75,000 trees, 35,000 of them loblolly pines. In the second year, the Ladybird Johnson Wild Flower Center took over the project, expanding the production of loblolly pines to approximately 350,000 per year with the help of a contract with the Texas Forest Service.

Codrea proposed and received funding for a tree nursery as part of the University’s Green Fee Program, which takes five dollars from each student’s tuition and contributes it to ecologically-oriented projects. The UT Campus Environmental Center received funding in 2011 to take on ecologically-friendly projects. 

Codrea and others are particularly focusing on replanting the loblolly pine trees, a special breed of trees that are resistant to drought and extreme temperatures. However, the loblolly pines were not able to withstand the devastating fires that spread across Bastrop County during the summer of 2011. 

Officials worry that other types of trees that grow quickly, such as the scrub oak and the red oak, could choke out the pine trees in the forest. 

“Over 95 percent of Bastrop State Park, which is the nucleus of the Lost Pines, burned down,” Codrea said. “There are only pockets that have been spared.”

Coincidentally, Codrea said he ordered 350,000 loblolly pine seeds for his new nursery in the spring of 2011. He received he seeds after the fires had started. 

“The weekend before the Labor Day fires started they sent the package, and the Tuesday after Labor Day we got the package with the seeds,” Codrea said. “Of course, this was after the fires had started, and we realized we had a great opportunity to help in the restoration.”

Though the efforts of the University and the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center are aimed at restoring the forest in Bastrop State Park to its original state, not all of the Lost Pines is on public land. 

Receiving assistance from the Texas A&M Forest Service, Bastrop County, and the Arbor Day Association, Tree Folks has been able to organize a volunteer replanting effort focused entirely on private land. 

Tree Folks works with landowners to come up with a plan to replant the pine trees on their property, Pacatte said. The organization then clears the land of any hazards, such as falling trees, so volunteers can get to work planting seedlings.

“The thing that’s really good about volunteer events is that they’re on private land, and most of the time the actual landowner is present, the people who went through the fire, or the people trying to recover from the fire,” said Dan Pacatte, a Tree Folks reforestation coordinator. “It’s pretty satisfying volunteering, let’s put it that way.” 

Though volunteer efforts hope to restore as much of the forest as possible, it still remains to be seen whether the Lost Pines will ever look the same as it did two years ago.

“It’s kind of difficult to say right now whether we can get it back to what it was pre-fire or not,” Stabeno said. “But either way it’s going to take a lot of work on everyone’s behalf to get it back.”