Fire-ravaged Bastrop State Park and its fabled Lost Pines area got a big boost this weekend on a quest to regain its lost beauty and ecological vitality, thanks to hundreds of Texas A&M University students who came to plant pine seedlings — thousands of them — under the watchful eyes of Texas A&M Forest Service (TFS) and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) personnel..
“Bring back the Lost Pines” was the theme of the day, and the Aggies quickly showed they are willing to do their part.
The student volunteers are being led by Aggie Replant, a Texas A&M environmental organization formed more than two decades ago to replace trees cut down when Aggie Bonfire was still conducted on campus. The recognized student organization has continued its founding mission even though Bonfire is no longer a sanctioned university activity.
The first contingent of about 800 Aggie volunteers arrived in a four-bus caravan from College Station Saturday morning (Feb. 16), and another group is scheduled to make the trip Sunday. Plans call for repeating the two-day program next weekend (Feb. 23-24).
At the conclusion of the four sessions, Aggie Replant leaders estimate the 6,600-acre park located some 30 miles southeast of Austin will have about 30,000 new drought-hardy loblolly pines in its horticultural inventory. The Aggies are planting the seedlings — which are about eight inches tall – along Park Road 1C in what is called the facility’s “historic scenic corridor.”
Tarek Abbassi, a senior biomedical engineering major from Houston and one of the Aggie Replant leaders, said he welcomed the opportunity to expand the organization’s service impact.
“Every year we bring trees to the Bryan/College Station area, but I’ve always felt that Replant could and should do more for the environment around Texas,” Abbassi said. “Replant’s involvement in the Lost Pines Forest Recovery Campaign is important because it represents the growth and change that Replant has made over the years.
“That is why I’m so happy that we were given this opportunity to help out Bastrop State Park. Over the two weekends, we will get to demonstrate our Aggie core values of leadership, excellence and selfless service while helping the Bastrop community bounce back from the wildfires of 2011.”
Another student, Jackie Brem, a sophomore, said she is a volunteer on her first planting. “I’m a farm girl, so this is great,” observed the chemical engineering major who, despite her farming heritage, claims Waco as her home town.
After the Aggies received safety and planting instruction, they were provided dibble bars to break through the hard-scrabble soil and a batch of seedlings. Not too long afterwards, little wire-bound pink flags started dotting the area, each signifying a newly planted seedling—against a backdrop of hundreds of pines estimated to have been at least 60 years old before being killed by the wildfire.
Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp, who was instrumental in bringing the Texas A&M students, TFS and TPWD together to carry out the newest Bastrop planting initiative, said that while all universities can claim academics, Texas A&M’s credentials include academics, research and service—and it’s the latter that is personified by the volunteer service at the state park.
“I am so proud of these Aggie students who are here today to help reforest the park,” Sharp added.
Sharp was joined in kicking off the massive Aggie replanting by State Senator Kirk Watson, Representative Tim Kleinschmidt, Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape, Bastrop Mayor Terry Orr, TPWD Commissioner Bill Jones and TFS Director Tom Boggus, among others.
Sen. Watson, whose District 14 includes the Bastrop area, joined in expressing gratitude to the students. “For those of us who care so deeply about this place, thank you,” he said, adding that, as a Baylor graduate, it might be the first time he had ever thanked Aggies.
Rep. Kleinschmidt, a 1979 Texas A&M graduate who represents District 17, which also includes Bastrop, called the volunteer work “neighbors coming to help neighbors” and thanked his “fellow Aggies for coming here and getting your hands dirty.”
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Commissioner Bill Jones of Austin, a 1981 Texas A&M graduate and former regent for the A&M System, underscored that the park ”is sick,” adding, “it’s trying to heal itself—and just needs a little help”—and he joined in thanking the Aggies for their help.
Texas A&M Forest Service Director Tom Boggus said “it’s a great day for Texas and Texans” and cited the overall private-public effort being manifested in the effort to restore Bastrop State Park.
Aggie Replant is said to be the first student-led university organization to participate in the Bastrop recovery campaign – certainly on the scale being undertaken.
It was through a fortuitous series of circumstances that the Aggies have the estimated 30,000 seedlings available for their planting service. The seeds that produced the seedlings — 1,100 pounds of drought-hardy loblolly pine seeds and 6,000 more of assorted varieties of the same species — were part of a TFS tree improvement program begun in 1951. However, demand for the seeds declined over the decades so the surplus was stored in an industrial freezer at the Brookshire Brothers Grocery in Lufkin.
They had been stored so long that in August of 2011, plans were in the works to toss them into a landfill. That plan changed after the Bastrop fire. Officials say the first priority for TFS was to germinate and grow the seed into seedlings. Nursery partners – including state facilities in Louisiana and Oklahoma, as well as the private seedling nursery, ArborGen, in Bullard, Texas – were asked to grow-out the seedlings.
Texas A&M Forest Service foresters are helping facilitate the Aggie planting events and training the students on proper planting technique, working alongside Bastrop State Park rangers.
The 2011 wildfire destroyed more than 1,600 homes and burned 32,400 acres, including 95 percent of the 75-year-old park, the heart of the Lost Pines ecosystem and critical habitat for the endangered Houston Toad.
Texas A&M Forest Service, TPWD and the Arbor Day Foundation launched the Lost Pines Forest Recovery Campaign last fall as a public-private partnership to raise money to plant more than 4 million trees. Since then, more than $2 million in donations has been raised to aid Bastrop wildfire recovery. Tree plantings this season are being paid for by the Apache Corporation, Friends of the Lost Pines, The Nobelity Project and many other donors. Wildfire recovery replanting in the park formally started in December.
The park has reopened with all campgrounds and cabins available–and almost all trails. See the Bastrop State Park web page at http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/bastrop for complete visitor information and the latest on wildfire recovery.