FOREST RESTORATION: OPERATION PONDEROSA
The Davis Mountains of West Texas contain some of the largest populations of Rocky Mountain Ponderosa Pine, Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum, in Texas. The Davis Mountains Preserve in Fort Davis contains a majority of these endemic stands.
Environmental stresses, initially a lack of soil moisture from drought, coupled with secondary bark beetle invasion, have killed the majority of trees. In addition, wildfires in 2011 burned through some of the most productive stands. Up to 75 percent of the Ponderosas in the Davis Mountains Preserve have been lost over the past decade, and it is predicted that losses will continue if nothing is done.
In 2014, Texas A&M Forest Service partnered with The Nature Conservancy to begin reforestation efforts on the Davis Mountains Preserve. TFS foresters assessed 18 stands and made the following recommendations:
- Collect native seed for grow-out and reforestation
- Thin overpopulated stands
- Remove competing vegetation to reduce drought and wildfire threats
- Collect baseline data to be used to monitor the recovery of forest stands
Between 2015 and 2016, TFS received a 3-year $200,000 grant from USDA Forest Service for initial forest stand assessments and management prescriptions. Stands were marked and baseline data gathered in preparation for the thinning of 350 acres. Over 2,000 seedlings were planted in a site prep experiment, and as wildland planting. The wildland planting includes any seedlings that were planted outside of the pre-determined research sites.
TFS scarified large grass growth under pines found with cones to open up areas for natural regeneration. In this site, scarification was completed by hand scraping and removing the layer of pine needles and vegetation. This exposes the bare mineral soil and gives the cones a better chance to take root.
Foresters continually collect cones and have already gathered those to be planted in late 2017 and 2018.
Data shows that seedling survival rate is below 25 percent, with herbivory being the main issue. In this area, gophers are the main issues as they eat the root systems of new, tender seedlings. Compared to other plantings in New Mexico and Arizona, the survival rate is on par with average numbers. Large cone crops on remaining pines and thinning operations have opened up promising seedbeds.