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Effect of historic dry spell could linger for years
DALLAS — Pockets of brown, sickly trees mar the traditionally majestic pine woods in East Texas. Leafless oaks can be seen across the state. Even native drought-resistant cedars are dying in some areas after proliferating during the past century.
These are the effects of a historic dry spell that is forecast to grip Texas well into 2012 and could alter the state’s landscape for years. Already, the lack of rain and extreme heat have taken a brutal toll on forests and city parks.
State foresters are watching insects ravage acres of drought-weakened trees while city officials are facing millions of dollars in costs to haul away fallen limbs and debris from parks.
“This is just so unprecedented,” said Jim Houser, Texas Forest Service’s forest health coordinator for Central and West Texas. “We’re seeing so many trees die that it’s going to affect the forest in a major way.”
Although much of Texas is prairie and desert land, forests are abundant in the central and eastern regions. The undulating, wooded Hill Country spreads out from Austin and the dense Piney Woods covers the area along the Louisiana border. Texas forests are used for a variety of recreational pursuits and for a multibillion-dollar timber industry.
But through September, the state has averaged only 8.5 inches of rain, nearly 13 inches less than normal. The past year is now the driest on record in the state. Forestry experts won’t know the long-term impact until next spring when it becomes clear how many trees are dead and how many became dormant.
Much of the damage is hard to prevent but some landowners are struggling to keep their trees alive. Jim and Alexandra Prevratil set up sprinklers with more than 2,000 feet of hose to water a stand of oaks, elms and dogwoods close to their home on their rural 70-acre property an hour east of Dallas. During the worst of the summer, when temperatures were above 100 for 40 consecutive days in the area, the Prevratils irrigated constantly with their well water.
“We’re doing everything that we humanly can,” Mrs. Prevratil said.
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.
The state’s timber industry, which employs 63,000 people and accounts for $23.7 billion in economic activity, is reeling not only from the drought but also from wildfires that have ravaged the dry forests. East Texas has lost almost $100 million in timber to wildfires since Nov. 15, according to the Texas Forest Service.
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