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From the Pen of Carter Smith

It looked like Armageddon, or at least what I always pictured it to be. A giant mushroom cloud, billowing vast plumes of thick, black smoke that could be seen for dozens of miles away, seemed ready to swallow the area whole. Giant flames shot up in the air like oversized bottle rockets, catching everything in their wake on fire, including the towering pines of the surrounding forest.  

As forest fires go, it was as impressive and ominous in look and destruction as they come, at least for our neck of the woods.

It was Labor Day weekend of 2011. The place, of course, was the fabled Lost Pines of Bastrop, that magnificent stand of loblolly pines isolated from the big East Texas woods by 100 miles or more. Record drought preceding the fire had dried out the forest like a tinderbox, so much so that foresters with the Texas A&M Forest Service characterized the condition of trees as the driest they had ever recorded. 

The heart of the conflagration was Bastrop State Park, a place built by the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps and cherished by generations of Bastrop families and other Texas families since the late 1930s. When it was all said and done, more than 95 percent of the state park had been burned. Saved from the fire were areas around the old golf course, the cabins, some campsites and some riparian areas where the soils held a little more moisture than the surrounding sandy hills.

It has been five years since that catastrophic fire. Suffice it to say, a lot has happened since then. As if the big fire itself wasn’t enough, the park has endured other substantial affronts — record floods, massive erosion, another fire, the washout of the dam on the park’s signature lake and the shuttering of the golf course. Just when it felt as if we were about to turn a corner on our fire recovery efforts, another incident popped up with yet more damage, more challenges and more costs.

Alas, as one old friend wryly remarked with the height of understatement, “If it ain’t the windmill, it’s the pump.” 

Thankfully, what isn’t damaged, broken or destroyed is the resilience and spirit of the men and women who proudly steward Bastrop State Park. Led in no small part by the husband and wife team of Jamie and Greg Creacy, along with hundreds of other staff, volunteers and donors, restoration and recovery plans are being carried out in great earnest and with great success. Erosion control structures have been installed on the hillsides, thousands of loblolly seedlings have been planted, exotic vegetation has been controlled, habitat has been enhanced for rare and imperiled species, new bridges, trails and fences have been built, and myriad research projects have been launched to help us better understand the post-fire effects on the park’s landscape.  

I often say that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department shines the brightest during our darkest hours. The accompanying article from Melissa Gaskill on the five-year anniversary of the fires at Bastrop undoubtedly underscores that sentiment. The state park, while admittedly a very different-looking place than before, is a veritable beehive of goings-on, not only with the business of restoration, but also with the activities of visitors, who have come back in droves to witness the process of bringing the forest back.

The nature of our business at TPWD, both stewardship and outdoor recreation, depends a lot upon the whims of Mother Nature. And while we can’t control what weather she brings us, we can ensure that her bounty is there for all Texans, now and to come, to enjoy, savor and experience. I hope you will take time to do just that at any of your state parks or wildlife management areas across Texas.  
Thanks for caring about our wild things and wild places. They need you now more than ever.

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