AUSTIN (KXAN) - Next time you take a dip in Barton Springs, keep your eyespeeled on the landscape as you leave.
Driving through the vast meadow that separates the pool fromMopac Expressway, on either side of the road you will take in aheartbreaking view. One dead tree after another sticks out like ared hot chili pepper in a candy store.
Zilker Park is hardly alone. Throughout Austin and CentralTexas, drought is slaughtering trees in "groves."
"We've probably lost more trees to drought lately than we haveto oak wilt," said Jim Houser, the chief oak wilt suppressionarborist for the Texas ForestService.
That is saying something, because since well before the turn ofthe last century, oak wilt disease has marched up and down thestate, leaving grotesque carcasses of once proud live oaks in itswake.
Here’s another driving suggestion for you: Head down toFredericksburg in Gillespie County for some shopping on thetown’s famous main street and then keep going on U.S. 290.Before you get to Junction, you’ll pass through Harper. Youmay not see Harper, not because it’s all that small, butbecause you’ll still be reeling from the sight of mile aftermile of dead oaks along both sides of the road. Most residents ofthe area have been looking at those ragged dead trees for theirentire lives.
"No one knew what was happening," said Paula Johnston, acertified arborist for Oak WiltSpecialists of Texas. "They were out there trimming on theirtrees and cutting trees down and things like that, not spraying thewounds. The beetles that carry the disease overland would go to onelive oak right after another, drop off spores, start new oak wiltcenters all over the place."
Below is Paula's full interview with Jim Swift:
By the time scientists figured out what was causing the killing,it was too late for the Harper area.
Now, though, researchers have a good handle on the fungus thatclogs up a tree’s waterways, causing it to wither and die.They know proper pruning techniques, including limiting pruning tothe months of June through February and sterilizing pruning toolswill help prevent infections of oak wilt.
They know that painting all fresh wounds immediately, whenever acut is made, will eliminate the odors that attract sap-eatingbeetles and the fungal spores they carry. They know that trenchingwill cut underground root systems and prevent oak wilt spread. Theyknow that injections with a fungicide can help keep live oaksgreen, even as the wilt spreads from tree to tree beneath them.Below is an explanation of injecting fungicide:
They also know that oak wilt will never be eradicated. It can bemanaged. Trees can be spared. Outbreaks can be reined in.
They known that by far, the huge, huge majority of trees will befine. And they know that when the disease hits your tree, youryard, your pasture, you will be devastated. The costs of removingthe dead trees will be extreme. The loss to the value of yourproperty will sting. The diminished shade and beauty outside yourwindow will hurt to the bone. They know you will have wished youhad paid more attention, read more, listened more, actedsooner.
They know, too, what you already also know: That as bad as theoak wilt plague is, it’s starting to pale in comparison tothe hot dry air that torments our every day.
"The worst thing that can happen is if they have oak wilt, andthen you have a drought," said South Austin homeowner Stan Hafner."That spells doom."
Hafner is now an expert, of sorts, himself.
"This was a spooky house when I moved in here in 1980," he said.“And you couldn't even see the house, there were so manytrees. It started in 1989, is the year that it came onto theproperty."
Below is Stan's wife, Johanna, talking about oak wilt:
A handful of trees went first. In time, over 30 would vanishfrom the hill top property. During the past two years, droughtclimbed up on oak wilt’s back and cracked a hot fire whip.More trees shriveled and died.
Beyond Austin’s city limits, the story was the same.
Down on the Quiet Valley Ranch near Kerrville, thousands ofmusic lovers descend on the campground twice a year forfestivals.
"Those people have been camping under those trees for 20, 30years and it hurt," said ranch manager Rick Wright, who watchedwith horror as oak wilt spread across the fence from a neighbor'sproperty.
"There were people that talked to the trees long before they,you know, before they died,” he said. “And when theydied, it was like losing a friend."
Now buckets of water are lined up beneath the shade of somesurviving trees on the campground. Groundskeeper Michael Terry usesthem to water the small trees is growing from seed. In the fall, hewill plant them where the old oaks used to stand. There will bemore diversity this time.
"I've got softwood trees; I've got hardwood trees," he said.
There’s not a live oak among them.
Terry is on exactly the right track, according to the experts.Jim Houser, the oak wilt coordinator for the Texas Forest Serviceand Chris Dolan, oakwilt arborist for the City of Austin, scramble through abriar-laden wood on a Southeast Austin golf course.
Summoned by a neighbor worried about a struggling old oak on theedge of the course, the scientists want to know what is killing it.They look for clues and they find a big one. Plenty of trees in thearea are dead or dying. Many of them are not oaks at all. Theyconclude that drought is the culprit, but they vow to return formore checks. An oak wilt breakout here could decimate centuries oldlive oaks all over the golf course. Below are two interviews withEric Beckers, a forester for the Texas Forest Service:
That’s the biggest challenge these days. It can bedifficult enough to nail down an oak wilt diagnosis in the best oftimes. With drought strangling the land, the job is harder thanever. So what do the rest of us do? The answer comes quickly andwith vigor.
"You've got to keep the trees alive and you've got to expendwater to do that,” said Houser. "We're getting lots of callsfrom all over and even right in Austin, where they say, 'You know,we're trying to conserve water so we don't, we're just going to letour yards go.' Well, you let your yard go, there's also trees andyou're letting your trees go and you need to water."
Houser recommends an inch of water, twice a week on your trees,early in the morning and late at night, avoiding saturation of thearea around the trunks.
It’s a lot of trouble; it adds to the water bill andit’s tough to take care of the trees and meet city waterrestrictions at the same time. Then there’s the whole oakwilt deal. Oh, yeah, and then the recession and two wars overseas.Is it worth all the trouble? Just ask Theresa Tabi of NortheastAustin. She plays with her two children beneath a towering live oakin the back yard. Out front, another large oak shades the yard.Just down the street, however, sits a massive live oak, clearlyvisible from Tabi’s place. It’s stone cold dead.
"No one wants to look at that,” she said. "And then you'vegot 150 years worth of history that's just dead. It's depressing tolook at dead trees.”
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