Flames from Bastrop fire will be felt for a long time

Flames from Bastrop fire will be felt for a long time

21 September 2011

published by www.mysanantonio.com

USA — Three interconnected Texas icons — the Lost Pines, Houston toad and Bastrop State Park — face daunting futures in the wake of the wildfire that scorched almost 55 square miles near Bastrop in recent weeks.

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.

While the determined efforts of TPWD staff and firefighters saved historic cabins and other buildings constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the rest of the park, including its extensive stands of mature loblolly pine, were extensively damaged.

TPWD said the park will be closed, perhaps for several months.

‘Losing an old friend’

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.

While wildfires are natural and necessary to maintain a forest’s health, most of them burn only relatively small areas, leaving a mosaic of forest and grasslands. The Lost Pines have seen scores of such fires, including major ones in the early 1900s.

But none of them was on the scale of the recent conflagration.

While tiny, isolated populations of the Houston toads are scattered in as many as nine counties, the Lost Pines — and specifically Bastrop State Park and surrounding private tracts — were the amphibians’ primary habitat.

Saved by burrowing

“Considering what I know of the boundaries of the fire, the area where the toads have done the best over the past 30 years and where the highest genetic diversity existed was completely swept by the fire — it got it all,” Forstner said.

The fire itself may not have killed all or even most of the Houston toads in its path. During the hottest, driest part of summer, the toads burrow as much as a foot or more into the loose, sandy soil and go into a kind of summer hibernation. That may have insulated them from incineration.

But the world those toads knew is gone, replaced by what Texas Parks and Wildlife Department herpetologist Andy Glusenkamp called “a moonscape.”

“They’re pretty tough little guys. As a species, they’ve lived here a long time; this kind of thing has happened before and they’ve recovered,” Forstner said of the toads. “But this is different.”

Before their original range shrank to its current disconnected fragments, toads affected by a temporary loss of habitat simply could move into adjacent healthy area.

“Now, they’ve got nowhere to run,” Forstner said.

While the immediate future of the Houston toad in the fire-seared Lost Pines appears dire, there are glimmers of hope.

Patches of Lost Pines habitat remaining around the edges of the burned area could be used to bolster the area’s toad population, Forstner said. Because of a successful and genetically diverse captive breeding colony of Houston toads headquartered at the Houston Zoo, stocking toads into that remaining habitat could boost those areas’ current low densities of toads and maintain the species until the forest recovers.

Williams, who studied the history and genetic makeup of the Lost Pines region and uses the forest as a case study in a book to be published later this year, said humans will play the dominant role in determining the face of the Lost Pines.

Decades of growing

Will it be the fire-intolerant loblolly pine, which has dominated the Lost Pines for the past century? Or will it be the short leaf pine, which is more drought resistant and the dominant species until a logging boom wiped them out in the1880s?

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.”

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