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Fire Ecologists Study Recovery of Bastrop State Park

Fire Ecologists Study Recovery of Bastrop State Park

Watch and learn about research being done on the recovery of Bastrop State Park after the devastating fire in the area in 2011. Video by Jeff Mertz. 

After one of the most destructive wildfires in Texas history ravaged Bastrop State Park in 2011, it’s difficult to know how the forest will recover. Known as the Lost Pines, the trees are thought to have been the isolated, westernmost remnant of an ancient forest that also included the Piney Woods of East Texas. 

The fire could have been so intense because of past fire suppression that it’s difficult for anything to grow, slowing recovery. Invasive plant species could take over in the wake of the disturbance, wreaking havoc on native species trying to establish themselves once again. Native oak trees could take the place of the native pines that burned, dramatically altering an area long known for its iconic loblolly pines.

Researchers from the College of Natural Sciences are working to document the forest’s recovery in the hopes of possibly influencing decisions that go into managing the recovery of the forest. Emily Booth is a plant biology graduate student working in the lab of professor Norma Fowler and is currently looking at the plant communities and their long-term trajectories after the fire at Bastrop State Park.

“One interesting thing about this project is that we've been working with people at the park and they have permanent plots set up so we have 13 years of pre-fire data that we can use to compare with our data,” Booth said. “Now that we have pre- and post-fire data, we can see what the immediate effect of the fire was.”

The Bastrop County Complex Fire, also known as the Labor Day Wildfires, burned much more than just Bastrop State Park. It burned thousands of acres in Bastrop County, destroyed over 1,500 homes, caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage and resulted in two deaths. It’s been labeled both a human and ecological tragedy.

Booth says that by looking at how the plants are doing now after the fire — what’s growing and how fast — they can try to predict what the forest will look like in the future, which may help guide park managers on how to help the forest recover.

“Before the fire a lot of places in the park had a very closed canopy, which may have actually led to the high intensity of the fire in 2011,” she said. “The aim now is to promote more of an open canopy, not quite a savanna but closer to a savanna. That will keep the canopy more open and that’s good for pine regeneration because they need a lot of sunlight to germinate and it will also reduce the risk of a big wildfire in the future because there's less fuel built up.”

For part of her work Booth checks plots throughout the park regularly. She documents what species are present and how many there are to get an idea of diversity. She also checks for signs of invasive species.

Booth’s project is just one of many going on in the Lost Pines area, including research at the Stengl Lost Pines Biological Station, a satellite facility of The University of Texas at Austin’s Brackenridge Field Lab.

To learn more about Booth's work as a fire ecologist, check out the video above.

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Comments 2

 
Guest - Larry Sullivan on Wednesday, 03 September 2014 09:08

In 1973 at UT Austin, in the Geography Department, we worked in both Lost Pines and the emerging, new and exciting Big Thicket on fire and ecosystems. Later, in 1976, I completed my MA thesis on fire management using goats at Arizona State's Geography Department. It is exciting to see the continued work by UT in this important and unique Texas resource, Lost Pines. Keep up the good work.

In 1973 at UT Austin, in the Geography Department, we worked in both Lost Pines and the emerging, new and exciting Big Thicket on fire and ecosystems. Later, in 1976, I completed my MA thesis on fire management using goats at Arizona State's Geography Department. It is exciting to see the continued work by UT in this important and unique Texas resource, Lost Pines. Keep up the good work.
Guest - Dennis B. Ralin on Wednesday, 03 September 2014 11:53

I was saddened to hear about the '11 disaster at BSP. As a UT Zoology grad student (MA, '67; PhD, '70) I spent a great deal of time out there study the cryptic species of the Hyla versicolor complex.

I was saddened to hear about the '11 disaster at BSP. As a UT Zoology grad student (MA, '67; PhD, '70) I spent a great deal of time out there study the cryptic species of the Hyla versicolor complex.
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