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Dec 2011 cover image
From the Pen of Carter P. Smith

The raindrops came and went without much evidence that they’d been here at all. They vanished, right back up into the cloud bank, if you could call it such — wispy little formations with just enough gray makeup to engender false hopes of fall showers. Such has been the story of the rain, or more accurately, the lack thereof, in the La Niña year of 2011.

Suffice it to say, most of Texas needs a drink. A long one.

According to those who pronounce such things, Texas is now officially in the midst of the driest one-year period on record and the second-longest drought in recorded history. The longest, of course, was the fabled drought of the ’50s, a time frame that my older country friends tell me I should be thankful I never knew.

So my frame of reference is now. And, the effects of this prolonged parching of the state’s lands, waters and wildlife habitats are pretty grim. Springs have quit spouting their life-giving waters. Creeks and streams no longer flow, and playas, ponds and other wetlands have long since held their last pools of water. Rivers can’t muster much of a flow into our rapidly receding lakes, much less our bays and estuaries, creating atypically high levels of salinity in our coastal waterways.

Statewide, the land itself has taken on new shades of deep browns and bright yellows, depressing to the eyes and spirit. Trees are showing their stress, and many have succumbed to the pressures of the wilting heat, paucity of rainfall and withering winds. In the eight counties around Houston, one study estimated that more than 60 million trees had died from the drought. In parts of West Texas and the western Hill Country, entire hillsides of juniper have died, giving a kind of surreal, bright-red “New England fall-like” appearance to the landscape.

If that wasn’t enough, 4 million acres of Texas were affected by the year’s wildfires, including a number of your state parks and wildlife management areas. And, while fires are a natural part of the ecology, these fires have been less than welcome in most places. Fueled by unnaturally dry forests, pastures and grasslands, high fuel loads and exceptionally sharp winds, the wildfires have scorched a landscape that was already stressed from the searing intensity of the year’s drought.

Nowhere were these conditions more evident than the catastrophic fires that raged through the Lost Pines around Bastrop. Driven by 30 to 40 mph winds, the fire hit the canopies of the drought-stressed pines and ripped through the forest without much to stand in its way. More than 95 percent of the 6,000-acre Bastrop State Park was torched, leaving a million or so dead standing trees in the fire’s wake.

If there was a bright spot, it was the herculean efforts put forth by firefighters from TPWD’s State Parks and Wildlife divisions who worked valiantly with other firefighters to protect the park’s historic CCC cabins, refectory and other buildings. Aided in major part by heavy machinery, water trucks and operators donated by Al Niece, Comanche Ranch, Holt Cat, Jimmy Evans Construction, Mustang Excavating and TxDOT, our firefighting teams were able to protect the park’s historic buildings, thereby giving us a starting place to rebuild. With an added boost from a generous grant from the Meadows Foundation, we’re working hard to reopen parts of the state park.

Droughts and fires have long been a part of a Texas landscape known for its mercurial weather patterns. Many long-range forecasts suggest they may both be here for a while longer. So will we, of course, stewarding your lands, waters, fish, wildlife and parks through good times and bad ones.

Thanks for caring about Texas’ wild things and wild places. They need you more than ever.

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