BASTROP COUNTY, TX (KXAN) — University of Texas field crews are hard at work recovering over a century’s worth of data that was lost last year. The Pine Pond Fire destroyed more than 300-acres of the Stengl Lost Pines Biological Station in August of last year.

“They’re really just trying to take a snapshot of what we have here,” said Steven Gibson, Site Manager at the Stengl Lab.

The forest provided researchers a place to study a rare mature pine forest in Central Texas. Since the 1990’s, researchers have been mapping the forest, collecting data on species that live there and studying the various biomes within.

Following the fire, all of that work has to be done again, but now in a new type of forest. Instead of a mature woods, scientists can study a baby forest that’s been rebooted after a fire.

UT's Stengl Field Station was decimated by recent wildfires that swept through Bastrop County. (Courtesy: KXAN/Eric Henrikson)
The Stengl Lost Pines Biological Field Lab: September 2023/September 2022

First, however, Gibson’s team must map the forest all over again. New funding has provided them this opportunity. What once was expected to take multiple years, could be completed in one.

A baby forest after a wildfire

Field Research Assistant Jane Strobel measures a tree as she recovers data following a wildfire. (Credit: Eric Henrikson/KXAN)

Greenery now covers what was once barren ash. In the early days, Gibson said a layer of moss colonized the forest floor. Now small plants are popping up. These “early colonizers” will take root until larger oak trees regrow.

Gibson said that while oak trees can regrow from just a stump, the pine trees that make the forest famous start as a seed. Trees in the surrounding area will help flower the burnt areas, meaning that the forest will have pine trees again. However, it will take decades before the forest appears as it once did.

“(We will track the) recovery of this forest and study how that takes place, how it may be different than when it grew up originally,” Gibson said.

Researchers don’t plan to interfere with natural processes. In the highly trafficked areas, dead trees will be cleared away, but not in the rest of the forest. “We want to let that natural succession take place.”

Gathering new data in an old forest

The University of Texas hired several staff members to recover the lost data. Valarie Gabbard and Jane Strobel serve as Field Research Technicians. All summer, they’ve ventured into the forest to catalog the changes.

“We really have high hopes that we can recover the vast majority of some of what we had,” Gibson said.

Each day they lay grids on the ground, counting the trees within. They’ve also gathered insects, determined which trees were alive or dead and measured them.

Site Manager Steven Gibson stands among the burnt pines at the Stengl Lost Pines Biological Field Lab (Credit: Eric Henrikson/KXAN News)

“Because it was all lost at once, we felt it was important to hire a crew dedicated towards recovering that data,” Gibson said.

The forest can be dangerous. Storms earlier in the year knocked many dead trees and branches down, while rain filled in many of the holes in the ground where trees once stood.

“The big thing that we work to keep our crews safe is timing.” The teams avoid windy days, work in pairs and wear hard hats in some areas.

While the forest and lab will recover, Gibson said its nice to see.” I knew what to expect It’s just a little bit more personal this time”