Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hundreds of Millions Dead

The Texas Forest Service’s top story this week is their report estimating that hundreds of millions of trees were killed by the 2011 drought.  That number is HUNDREDS of MILLIONS.
Killed is the specific word used by the Texas Forest Service to describe the impact of this year’s extreme drought conditions on one of the great natural resources we often take for granted:  an estimated 4.9 billion trees in Texas.  The drought killed, and is killing, somewhere between 2 and 10 percent of the state’s trees.  And the dying process will continue.
It is hard to visualize the numbers, but the report estimates a range from 100 million to 500 million trees that died this year as a direct result of the drought.  And these reported numbers were limited to trees with a diameter of 5 inches or larger, so they do not include the loss of young saplings.
The numbers sited are based on the expertise, and eye witness reports, of forestry professionals. Each forestry expert was tasked by the Texas Forest Service to evaluate their respective local communities, using the data analysis techniques provided by the Texas Forest Service.
Per the report:  “Each forestry expert estimated the percentage of trees in their region that had died as a result of the 2011 drought.  That percentage was applied to the estimated number of trees in the region, a figure determined by the agency’s Forest Inventory & Analysis (FIA) program.”
These staggering numbers will continue to be refined—and perhaps “grow” through refined data collection and analysis, including planned aerial imagery.  The numbers will surely grow due to the undetermined number of trees that are currently in a non-recoverable dying process.  The spring of 2012 will certainly bring about an increased awareness for the staggering number of dead trees.  As early spring’s “greening” occurs, the hundreds of millions of dead trees will stand silent and stark in contrast to spring’s expectations.  
I took quite a few pictures this fall of landscapes filled with dead trees—many that died the agonizing slow death from thirst, and many that died the quick and horrible death from fire.  But no picture can begin to portray the significance of this loss.
Whether driving across Texas, across a local county, across a major city or small town, I encourage each of us to note the number of dead trees standing.  There are millions of dead trees standing.  We mustn’t mistake them for the normally leafless winter dress of a healthy tree.  We must not assume that these killed trees will be returned to normal conditions with rain-soaked winter days.   
And yes, nature is doing what nature does—responding to habitat change.  But we would be somewhat arrogant and na├»ve to assume no causal human involvement and to assume no resulting human impact.  And the impact of a probable long term habitat change is a topic pondered by all whose livelihood, lifestyles and interests are coupled to these beauties.  I’m not talking about the politically polarized subject of global warming.  I’m talking about the obvious specificity of this state’s multi-year drought conditions and the habitat changes that accompany this current trend.  My lifetime won’t see the mature replacement of these hundreds of millions.
The 2011 drought was pained by the unnecessary number of fires that were NOT initiated by Mother Nature’s lighting strikes.  Nine out of ten wildfires are caused by humans.  This past years reporting on these fires often included the bad, and sometimes illegal, human behavior that initiated the uncontrolled flames. 
And most of us are aware of the 20/20 hindsight regarding the negative impact of well intended years of human suppression of naturally occurring wildfires.  Those one in ten naturally occurring wildfires will burn hotter and more dangerous in this state’s and our nation’s artificially created tinderboxes, created by unnatural undergrowth and overgrowth resulting from human suppression of natural wildfires.
I am not getting on a soap box.  I am not looking for blame.  But I do encourage observation and thoughtful consideration when these majestic and critical natural resources are killed in such astounding numbers.  And so, as we drive about this December season, busily engaged with both national and family traditions and celebrations, I encourage a thoughtful look to the trees that make this state an extraordinary habitat for a diverse population of Mother Nature’s creation. 
As we assess our personal yearly budgets for the planned and unplanned expenses of the past year, and goals for the next, I encourage a thoughtful consideration of the significant impact on the operating budgets of city, county, state and national parks.  The cost of providing safe access for the many human visitors will be reflected in an enormous unplanned budget line item for removal of an off-nominal number of dead limbs and trees. Many trails that we take for granted will be closed until the “all clear” cost and work is paid and performed.   And for the economy and welfare of our neighbors whose businesses produce products or services that are directly or indirectly linked to our state’s trees?  The impact is probably not measurable at this time.  But can we consumers even create a list of these businesses that are impacted?  That would be an enlightening science fair project.
The torrential rains on the Texas Upper Gulf Coast were a welcome sound this morning.  The weather reports of widespread rain across much of Texas these last few weeks have brought the beginnings of relief to so many areas.  The RGV has received an unusual multi-day rain this past week—the first real rain in that area since last winter.  Whether this relief to much of Texas is temporary, or a drought trend changer, is to be determined—but the experts caution of repeating patterns from this past year’s drought. 
But today, we can delight in these healing rains. There are trees out there right now, fighting for life, in a self-induced form of dormancy, in an attempt of self-preservation.  These recent rains will not bring killed trees back to life.  But they wonderfully strengthen the chances for weakened trees by providing a natural catalyst to return to a nominal botanic lifecycle; a restoration from the self-induced water-starved dormancy.  There is nothing like the tenacity of an old tree. 
Check out the Texas Forest Service website.  Explore their “Big Tree Registry” and listing of Famous Trees of Texas.  Talk about this fascinating information with family and friends, young and old.  And if you haven’t climbed a tree lately, you may find it the best therapy for the stress of your daily responsibilities and “to do” lists. 
I think we all turn into smiling children, when up a tree.


  1. Makes me want to go out and plant a tree.

  2. Makes me want to go out and plant a FEW trees. :(


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