Professors hope to provide education and volunteer opportunities for students
Writer: Kay Ledbetter, 806-677-5608, email@example.com
Contacts: Dr. Carol Loopstra, 979-862-2200, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Georgianne Moore, 979-845-3765, email@example.com
Dr. Kathryn Henderson, 979-845-9706, firstname.lastname@example.org
COLLEGE STATION – Mixing sociology, ecology and forestry, three Texas A&M University professors hope to aid and track recovery in “the Lost Pines” that were destroyed by fire in 2011 near Bastrop.
The primary species in the Lost Pines area is a species of loblolly pine genetically different from other loblolly pines, according to Dr. Carol Loopstra, associate professor in biotechnology and program leader for forestry. The area is known as “the Lost Pines” because it is separated from the contiguous range of loblolly pine.
Dr. Kathryn Henderson, associate professor in sociology, and two faculty members from the ecosystem science and management department, including Loopstra and Dr. Georgianne Moore, associate professor of ecohydrology and program leader in ecology restoration, are joining forces.
The team will work together on a three-year grant aimed at increasing high-impact learning experiences with a mix of undergraduate and graduate students in their respective classes.
Henderson had taken students to volunteer in post-Katrina New Orleans and initiated the Bastrop wildfire grant. She and her students are working with the Bastrop Relief Center to provide volunteer assistance to wildfire survivors and assemble an archive of their accounts of the fire, which will be shared with the Bastrop Public Library.
Loopstra and Moore and their students are partnering with the Griffith League Boy Scout Ranch, which has about 4,000 acres in the headwaters area, half of which burned. The ranch has a mix of burned, unburned and previously burned areas, which provides a good study area, Moore said.
She said their study group will be working also with the Lost Pines Recovery Team, which includes the Texas Forest Service, the ranch, the military, private companies and foundations.
“We are trying to participate in the recovery effort and provide TAMU students a learning opportunity, and to also provide academic insight into the recovery process,” Moore said. “There’s no manual on how to restore it. The Lost Pines Recovery Team is coming up with plans, and we want to provide the students an opportunity to observe and be a part of it.”
With a large portion of that forest now burned, the area basically lost the whole ecosystem, Moore said. And now the Lost Pines Recovery Team is dealing with distributing and planting millions of pine seedlings in an area densely populated with small-acreage owners.
“The sociological side of this will be very interesting,” she said.
Henderson said her students will experience and hear firsthand how issues in the disaster literature manifest in the lives of real individuals. The unique post-wildfire setting will facilitate students’ development of valuable research and writing skills at the same time they are helping those impacted by the Bastrop wildfires.
These include: understanding and use of qualitative methods of observation, interview, visual methods, and analysis and writing; and gaining a basic understanding of major themes in the disaster literature to compare to field observations, she said. Various aspects of disasters to be addressed will include myths and definitions of disasters, organizational responses, vulnerable populations issues, comparison of human-caused versus “natural” disasters, resettlement, and impacts on community and individuals.
Loopstra’s class will look at the trees in the burned and unburned areas and see what is growing and when; Moore’s class will look at erosion and vegetation recovery.
The initial challenges will be to stop the erosion and get the native vegetation re-established, Moore said.
“Heavy rains this past winter caused the sandy soil that had no vegetative cover to erode, washing out roads and silting in creeks,” Moore said. “Students will be able to see that and see how it recovers.”
Loopstra said unless herbicide treatments are applied to control some of the plant growth, the natural vegetation may have trouble coming back. Blackjack oak is already growing, and if it is not controlled, it can choke out other vegetation.
“Planting trees without other actions will not bring back the pines,” she said. “We hope our students will be able to volunteer to help replant the area and also watch the recovery take place over the coming years.”
Moore said the students will use five Apple iPads to support the project, identifying soil types and seeing what the area looked like on Google Earth before and after the fire. The iPads will also be used to take panoramic pictures throughout the next three years to track the changes.
“Restoration is problem solving, and this will give students an opportunity to practice their problem-solving skills and develop solutions,” she said. “This will better prepare them to have to address challenges that come at them later in their lives.”
This outdoor classroom project wouldn’t have been possible without the tragedy, Loopstra said, but added it provides a unique opportunity. Many of these students would never have an opportunity to get out into a burned area and see the devastating effects of a forest fire.
“At the end of the semester, we want to bring the students together from all three classes and let them talk about what they each learned,” Loopstra said.
Moore said the research experience the students will have includes setting up experimental plots, some with no action taken, some with trees replanted and others where grass and wildflowers are reseeded.
“My classes in the future will go and compare those and note the changes and recovery aspects,” she said. “We also hope some of the undergraduate students will make it their research thesis.”
The seedling planting effort, led by the Texas Forest Service, will include seeds from the drought-hardy Bastrop trees that were a part of Dr. Tom Byram’s program. Byram is director of the Texas Forest Service Western Gulf Tree Improvement Program and an assistant professor in the department of ecosystem science and management.
Over the years, Byman has stockpiled about 1,000 pounds of seed from the loblolly pines, so they should be well-acclimated and germinate quite well, Loopstra said. In addition, she said she plans to experiment with growing trees from seeds collected from cones this September around Bastrop.
“These cones were actually pollinated before the fire and quite possibly their fathers perished in the fire,” she said. “It will be interesting.”