As chronicled in Part I: Hurricane Ike, our beloved Texas trees have endured several difficult years. Hurricane Ike left many broken and battered, poisoned by salt water from storm surge, weakened for the ordeals that would come next.
I grew up in New England, and spent my youth in the woods, generally taking trees for granted. Once in a while we would lose individual trees to the weight of ice or snow or the howling winds of the occasional hurricane or nor'easter. Still, there were plenty of trees - gorgeous maples, majestic oaks, elegant birches, aromatic pines, gnarled lilacs...Trees permeated our landscape.
When my husband's job transfered him to Texas, I was less than thrilled at the prospect. I'd been all over much of the state, from Texarkana to El Paso, Dallas, San Antonio, Abilene, and many of the small towns in between. I'd never been to Houston until my weekend of house-hunting. Flying into George Bush Intercontinental Airport, seeing the lush green forests and farmlands, I felt an immediate, visceral sense of joy. This was going to be okay. More than okay.
East Texas shares a climate with neighboring Louisiana... at least it did when I moved to Texas in 2007. Plentiful rainfall supports forests, agriculture, urban parks, and suburban gardens. Houston is the Bayou City. When it rains here, or when it used to rain, I should say, we could get some real "gully-washers" - rains of several inches per hours.
Now, though, our entire state of Texas has been ravaged by drought, as shown on the latest drought monitor map of the US below.
The NOAA winter outlook offers little cause for optimism:
With La Niña in place Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and parts of surrounding states are unlikely to get enough rain to alleviate the ongoing drought. Texas, the epicenter of the drought, experienced its driest 12-month period on record from October 2010 through September 2011.
The Texas Forest Service doesn't mince words on the grim outlook:
Forest officials said some areas may not return to normal for more than a decade.
Healthy pines normally produce enough sap to help repel pine engraver beetles, which attack the area under the tree's bark, said Joe Pase, the Texas Forest Service's forest health specialist for the region. But many are defenseless now. In oaks, he said, several different fungi are invading drought-stressed trees, the most common being hypoxylon fungus.
Mark Simmons, director of the ecosystem design group at The University of Texas at Austin's Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, said the loss of cedars, which have spread widely in Central Texas, will lead to the return of native grasses and wildflowers in many areas.
The state's timber industry, which employs 63,000 people and accounts for $23.7 billion in economic activity, is suffering not only from the drought but from wildfires that have raged through the dry forests. East Texas has lost more than $97 million in timber to wildfires since Nov. 15, according to the Texas Forest Service.
According to the Houston Chronicle:
Millions of trees in the Houston area are likely to perish due to the drought gripping the state, potentially worsening air quality problems, destroying wildlife habitat and making the area warmer, experts said.
The most dire prediction came from Barry Ward, executive director of the nonprofit Trees for Houston, who estimated that 66 million trees - about 10 percent of the entire canopy in the eight-county Houston area - would die within two years as a result of the worst drought in Houston's history.
Houston city workers are removing dead trees from city parks, including Memorial Park, where at least 341 trees have died - some from pine bark beetles but others due to the drought, said Joe Turner, director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department.Another 200 trees have died in other city parks, and work crews are cutting down trees that could fall on public thoroughfares or injure people.
In August, I posted this summary of Texas Drought Impacts, A-Z showing the many ways in which the drought was taking a toll on people, animals, habitats, businesses, and in some cases, entire ways of life. In the intervening three months, things have gotten worse.
Follow along below the missing raincloud to learn more about the impacts of our drought damage, and how Texans are dealing with the loss of our trees.
Loss of trees leads to other difficulties. A few days ago, drought impacts led to authorities moving a herd of bison
Authorities in Texas say drought conditions have forced them to relocate a herd of 11 bison that have called a Houston public park home for decades.
Harris County officials say Deussen Park has lost 1,000 trees in the drought so far, which is why the bison were loaded up and taken to a ranch near the Oklahoma border, KTRK-TV, Houston, reported Wednesday.
The good news is: these bison join a larger herd where they can graze on grassland and interbreed and deepen their gene pool. The bad news: folks in Houston will no longer enjoy these creatures in a local setting.
At the smaller end of the animal kingdom scale, monarch butterflies have been very scarce this year.
It is one of the most amazing migrations in all of the world, not least because the animal making the 3,000-mile journey weighs half a gram and North Texans often see the ancient journey from their back yards and gardens.
Normally the butterflies' migration from the Red River to the Rio Grande Valley is hailed as one of autumn's great marvels. "I've seen probably four monarchs in the last three weeks," lamented Michael Warriner, an invertebrate biologist with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department in Austin.
The likely reason lies in the merciless drought, which dramatically reduced the butterflies' main food source as they moved south for the winter..."The drought really appears to have had profound effects on the flora," he said. "The juniper is dying in wide patches, and that's one of the last trees I would have thought would be impacted. Walking along riverbeds, there were almost no nectar sources. That suggests the monarchs would be pretty stressed coming through Texas."
Saving some trees is a matter of historical significance. For example,
Fort Worth forester Melinda Adams said the city is using its one water truck to help young trees and those with historical significance, such as Traders Oak, near the site of an 1800s trading post.
A sad sight indeed: the loss of this fine tree in Austin.
In Galveston where many elderly trees were destroyed during and after Hurricane Ike, planners are looking to the future:
...after watching our experience replayed across the entire state and in other vulnerable parts of the West and Southwest, where extreme weather is leaving trees vulnerable to drought, fire and insect attack, Galveston has started to treat trees as vital infrastructure. Trees need to be maintained, just as we maintain our bridges and roadways.
...And when disaster does strike, we now know there are benefits to disposing of trees in a way that eases loss and encourages people to get out and replant. It took a year or more to figure out how many trees had to come down in Galveston, so the members of the Tree Conservancy had time to plan, and they got creative.
Many of the oaks that once framed Broadway were used to rebuild a 19th century whaling ship berthed in Connecticut's Mystic Seaport. And sculptures made from the trees now attract thousands of visitors to the island. In front of our home, for example, the stump of a 100-year-old oak has been carved into a wooden column with jagged edges, the symbol in Victorian times of a life cut short.
For many of us in Texas, trees are certainly vital infrastructure. Never again will I take trees for granted. I'm on a first-name basis with my arborist, and have taken his advice in keeping my 14 trees on my little quarter-acre lot healthy, aerated, fertilized, checked for disease, pruned of deadwood, and most of all, alive. But from my desk where I write this, I can see the line of dead and drying trees only a few hundred feet away. Everywhere I drive, stressed and dead trees loom, with little or no rain anticipated in the coming months.
How much longer can we keep death from our doorstep?
In the next installment of this diary, the final heartbreak for our Texas trees: massive wildfires that raged across the state this summer.