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Parks officials vow to restore historic Bastrop State Park

Friday, October 14, 2011 by Mark Richardson

Bastrop State Park, the legendary 6,000-acre stand of loblolly pine trees and stunning views somehow misplaced by providence, remains a charred landscape six weeks after Labor Day wildfires devastated the area. But armed with a private foundation grant – seed money, if you will – Texas Parks and Wildlife officials say the park will someday rise from the ashes.

But it will be several years, if not decades, before the park can be returned to its former grandeur, according to those who manage the facility. While they hope to reopen some parts of the park as early as December, other areas will have to wait for time and Mother Nature to heal the wounds.

Bastrop State Park is coming back and coming back stronger than ever,” said Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “We pledge that. The sense of place that’s been here for generations will be restored.”

A total of 34,000 acres in the Bastrop region were affected by the fires, which destroyed more then 1,500 homes, killed two people, and devastated the area’s economy. But some of the worst damage occurred in the park, which was developed in the 1930s by the federal Civilian Conservation Corps program.

Carter spoke Thursday at a news conference in the park announcing an $850,000 grant from the Dallas-based Meadows Foundation given to help the park’s recovery efforts. The foundation, formed by Dallas oil executive Al Meadows in 1948, has over the years provided more than $500 million in charitable grants to a wide variety of Texas-based causes.

Following the news conference, park officials took members of the news media and others on a tour of the devastation.

The grant money – and much, much more – will be needed to eventually replace the estimated 1.5 million trees destroyed or damaged by the wind-driven wildfires. Officials estimate that about 95 percent of the park was damaged, though they are still in the process of an acre-by-acre examination. 

Park Director Todd McClanahan said foresters are performing a triage-type assessment of which trees might survive and which must be cut down.  

“If these trees have any green tips or tops they could have a chance for survival,” he said. “If they don’t have any green they are going to die. The view people are used to seeing, the tunnel of pine trees is going to look so different because we have to remove those trees—they will fall.”

McClanahan said many parts of the formerly lush, green forest have been turned into what he likened to a “moonscape,” blackened tree trunks sticking out of a ground covered with grey soot and ashes. He said it is too soon after the fire to be able to estimate the total cost of restoring the park.

Park employees have already begun cutting down trees along roads and near structures in the park to prevent them from falling and doing damage; damaged trees are marked for removal with orange ribbons. Because the fire consumed much of the park’s ground cover, officials there are also worried about erosion.

The park was already stressed, according to McClanahan, due to this past summer’s extreme heat and the continuing severe drought, which had already taken a severe toll before the fires. He said that his staff had planted some 50,000 seedlings in the park in 2008, only to see them die in the severe drought in the months that followed.

He said the state does have a sufficient number of loblolly pine seeds to begin a reforestation program, but that it may take a year or more to grow the seedlings that would be used. He said that would mean that the earliest they could begin planting seedlings would be sometime in 2013.

“Given the failure of our 2008 reforestation program, we would probably take a hard look at the long-term weather forecast before we start down that road again,” he said.

The Meadows Foundation grant will be administered by the Texas Forest Service, and will be divided among several entities affected by the fire. Most of it, some $500,000, will be used to reimburse the dozens of volunteer fire departments for time and materials used in battling the blaze. Other agencies set to receive funds include the American Red Cross ($200,000), Texas Parks and Wildlife ($100,000), The Salvation Army ($30,000), the SPCA of Texas ($10,000) and the Austin Humane Society ($10,000).

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