Vlad Codrea

UT volunteers are still working to restore the Bastrop Lost Pines forest to its former glory after fires ravaged most of its trees almost two years ago.

Students with the UT Campus Environment Center, an organization that uses a percentage of student tuition for ecologically-oriented projects, have partnered other local groups to replant trees in the area. Although many forests naturally recover from forest fires, officials say the Lost Pines cannot recover without human intervention because of its delicate ecosystem. Because not all of the Lost Pines forest is public, volunteers are also replanting trees on private land. 

Students are working with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and Tree Folks, a nonprofit organization that works to plant trees in Central Texas parks and other public areas. In 2011, wildfires swept across Central Texas and destroyed many trees and property. 

“When you combine the two, the strong winds and the extremely-dry rain condition, you’re in for a disaster,” said Colton Stabeno, a Lost Pines Habitat Conservation administrator.  “It was sort of like the perfect storm.”

Vlad Codrea, a coordinator for the UT Campus Environment Center, said groups of up to 40 student and communtity volunteers will meet up to cultivate seedlings that will be planted in Bastrop. Volunteers will fill containers with soil and seeds and set them out in the sun and water them for several weeks before they send them off. 

In its first year, the program planted 75,000 trees, 35,000 of them loblolly pines. In the second year, the Ladybird Johnson Wild Flower Center took over the project, expanding the production of loblolly pines to approximately 350,000 per year with the help of a contract with the Texas Forest Service.

Codrea proposed and received funding for a tree nursery as part of the University’s Green Fee Program, which takes five dollars from each student’s tuition and contributes it to ecologically-oriented projects. The UT Campus Environmental Center received funding in 2011 to take on ecologically-friendly projects. 

Codrea and others are particularly focusing on replanting the loblolly pine trees, a special breed of trees that are resistant to drought and extreme temperatures. However, the loblolly pines were not able to withstand the devastating fires that spread across Bastrop County during the summer of 2011. 

Officials worry that other types of trees that grow quickly, such as the scrub oak and the red oak, could choke out the pine trees in the forest. 

“Over 95 percent of Bastrop State Park, which is the nucleus of the Lost Pines, burned down,” Codrea said. “There are only pockets that have been spared.”

Coincidentally, Codrea said he ordered 350,000 loblolly pine seeds for his new nursery in the spring of 2011. He received he seeds after the fires had started. 

“The weekend before the Labor Day fires started they sent the package, and the Tuesday after Labor Day we got the package with the seeds,” Codrea said. “Of course, this was after the fires had started, and we realized we had a great opportunity to help in the restoration.”

Though the efforts of the University and the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center are aimed at restoring the forest in Bastrop State Park to its original state, not all of the Lost Pines is on public land. 

Receiving assistance from the Texas A&M Forest Service, Bastrop County, and the Arbor Day Association, Tree Folks has been able to organize a volunteer replanting effort focused entirely on private land. 

Tree Folks works with landowners to come up with a plan to replant the pine trees on their property, Pacatte said. The organization then clears the land of any hazards, such as falling trees, so volunteers can get to work planting seedlings.

“The thing that’s really good about volunteer events is that they’re on private land, and most of the time the actual landowner is present, the people who went through the fire, or the people trying to recover from the fire,” said Dan Pacatte, a Tree Folks reforestation coordinator. “It’s pretty satisfying volunteering, let’s put it that way.” 

Though volunteer efforts hope to restore as much of the forest as possible, it still remains to be seen whether the Lost Pines will ever look the same as it did two years ago.

“It’s kind of difficult to say right now whether we can get it back to what it was pre-fire or not,” Stabeno said. “But either way it’s going to take a lot of work on everyone’s behalf to get it back.” 

UT students Alison Wyllie and Shelly Bergel remove weeds from seedlings at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Saturday. The seedlings are slated to be delivered to areas affected by last yearÂ’s fires in Bastrop County.

Photo Credit: Nathan Goldsmith | Daily Texan Staff

With Tuesday marking the one-year anniversary of the most destructive fire in Texas history that reduced more than 30,000 acres of Bastrop County to ashes and more than 1,500 homes to mere memories, a UT graduate student is working to restore life to the affected landscape.

UT molecular biology graduate student Vlad Codrea has spent the last year developing and maintaining a tree nursery at UT’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center with the goal of delivering thousands of native tree seedlings for Bastrop residents and park officials to plant. Codrea hopes this massive effort will help restore natural areas that were devastated in last year’s fire.

“[The seedlings] will be given out to landowners whose land had been burned by the fires as well as planted across Bastrop State Park,” Codrea said.

Codrea said he plans to distribute the 70,000 seedlings growing at the Wildflower Center to Bastrop residents and park officials in October.

UT’s Green Fee Committee funds the majority of Codrea’s tree nursery, the first of its kind at UT, with a $54,000 grant distributed over three years. A part of the Office of Sustainability, the committee allocates the funds it receives from the $5-a-year “Green Fee” that each student pays as part of student fees.

Karen Blaney, Green Fee Committee program coordinator at the Office of Sustainability, said the project’s originality and long-term positive effects motivated the committee to award the grant.

“In terms of far-reaching impacts, it is up there,” Blaney said. “There is hope for the tree nursery even after he gets his degree and moves on.”

Codrea received the grant before the fires took place, with the intention of creating a student-run tree nursery at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus, but moved to the Wildflower Center and integrated his efforts with theirs after seeing first-hand how destructive the Bastrop fire had been to native plant species in the Lost Pines region.

“After the fires, we knew we had a great responsibility and opportunity to help with the reforestation and restoration project of the Lost Pines,” Codrea said.

Since receiving the grant, Codrea has worked with the Wildflower Center to build a suitable greenhouse for the nursery and hosts student and community volunteers every Saturday. 

Microbiology graduate student Jeremy Henderson helped tend to the seedlings for the first time at last Saturday’s volunteer event.

“By replanting the trees, I think it is a reminder that not only is there a community available to help them nearby, but it also helps them heal those wounds of loss,” Henderson said.

Saralee Tiede, spokesperson for the Wildflower Center, said the nursery is the most extensive project a student has ever conducted in conjunction with the center.  

As for the use of the Green Fee funds on the nursery, Blaney said the nursery is a very visible example of the Green Fee at work and its benefit to the University and community.

“Every single year, students come and wonder what UT is doing for the surrounding community,” Blaney said. “The tree nursery is a really good answer for one way that UT can contribute to the region.”

Blaney hopes the free and public nursery that often hosts student volunteers will spur student interest in conservation and sustainability issues.  

“Not many people get to grow a tree,” Blaney said. “Who knows what it will spark in somebody?” 

Printed on Tuesday, September 4th, 2012 as: Seeds donated to Bastrop