Bastrop's Lost Pines saved by procrastination

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by JASON WHEELER / WFAA

WFAA

Posted on January 11, 2013 at 9:36 AM

Updated Thursday, Dec 5 at 6:58 AM

BASTROP, Texas -- The emerald giants that have long towered over Bastrop are true Texas gems. They're known as loblolly pines.

“These pine trees here are the only pine trees of their kind in the world,” said Shane Harrington with the state forestry service.

He said long ago, a whole belt of unusually-drought-tolerant Loblollies laid down roots in Bastrop, further west than any others. Because they were separated from the rest of their forest family by a hundred miles, they became known as the “Lost Pines."

But in 2011, they really were almost lost. A raging wildfire whittled the thicket to into a blackened cemetery of stubs.

“I mean it was just a moonscape, and it was very hard to look at," Harrington said.

But Bastrop is quickly making a comeback.

In the burn zone, teams of planters have been sweeping through - almost as fast as a wildfire - putting back what was lost.

“It’s a lot of trees,” Harrington said.

The day WFAA visited him and his team of planters, he estimates they had put 15,000 of the trees in the ground that day. The state plans to plant five-to-seven million loblollies over five years.

“Mother Nature is very resilient. She’s going to come back,” Harrington said.

One big help is that they are not planting garden-variety substitutes. They’re actually relatives of the hardwoods they replace. As Harrington explains, “The seeds used to grow these seedlings came from the trees we lost in the fire; so these were their grandchildren."

The effort was only possible because the state, for decades, collected pine cones from the loblollies and saved their seeds.

Tom Byram, a geneticist with the Texas A&M Forest Service, said they had more than 150 full boxes of loblolly seeds. But since they had just been sitting in freezers for years taking up space, in 2011, Byram decided it was time to throw them away.

"We were waiting on crews and a pickup truck with a trailer to haul it to a landfill," he said. "Yeah, [it was] on the to-do list.”

Procrastination saved the day, though.

Byram never got around to hauling off the seeds. Less than three weeks later, Bastrop burned.

WFAA asked him how big of a relief it was that he never got to that item on the to-do list.

“It was huge... Absolutely huge," he said, "because we knew immediately what we had and its importance to the restoration effort. It certainly would have been a mistake to have thrown it away.”

Looking back at what almost happened is still hard. So instead, Byram prefers to look forward - and upward - where a few decades from now, hopefully, this new crop of loblollies will restore that geographical jewel that was to its original splendor.

E-mail jwheeler@wfaa.com

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