Deadly Hazards – Unfortunate Drought Leftovers

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I’ve been waiting most of the spring for the trails within Sam Houston National Forest to open. Unfortunately (until yesterday) nearly all the trails have been closed because of the potential for widespread falling trees and the deadly hazards they pose to anybody using the trail systems. Falling trees tend to hurt. And kill.

Green. Sam Houston National Forest in 2008 - the good ol' days. Photo: Avery

Why are 6,000 acres of Sam Houston National Forest and many of the 160,000 acres of the nearby Davy Crockett National Forest afflicted by an epidemic of dead trees? The drought. The drought that, for most of last year, dominated headlines for its killing of livestock, wildlife and fish, the plowing-under of crops, the drying-up of lakes, the scorching of earth (at least 1.8 million acres burned last year) — and, of course, countless dead trees — across most of the southern half of the country. In Houston alone, more than 15,000 drought-stricken trees have had to be removed. Even samples of some endangered species, dependent on water, have been (and are being) evacuated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. No doubt, wildlife evacuations are rare. This drought has gone down in the history books as being the worst-ever 1-year drought in Texas. It’s even worse than that: Dendrology is able to determine that it’s not been this dry in 223 years. Yet the drought today might as well be a thing of the distant past as most areas of Southeast Texas are well ahead of average annual rainfall totals and most lakes and rivers have returned to normal levels. Take a look at few of the YourWeatherBlog posts we did last year on the drought. If you don’t have time to read the articles, browse the pictures. You can find a few of those articles here, here and here.

The drought today. Though many areas of the Southeast are still plagued by a lack of precipitation many areas so severely affected by drought just six months ago are showing remarkable recovery - especially Southeast Texas. Image: USDA and NOAA

In the Sam Houston and Davy Crockett National Forests, the National Parks Service has closed all trails that have dead trees within 100 feet of them (in other words, nearly all). When searching for the latest news about the trails, the trees and any injuries that may have resulted, I found many articles but none specifically about an injury. That’s good news. Although, someone like me might almost wish for at least a small injury to justify the months of closures of the many miles of trails. No, of course I don’t really wish for somebody to get hurt but, come on — thousands upon thousands of Houstonians and other Texans, and likely many others from around the country have come to rely upon the national forests of Southeast and eastern Texas for an escape from everyday life. We’ve been lining up since the dreary days of late winter for our return to the forest but as the first day of summer is less than a month away and hurricane season just a week away, the wait seems to be never-ending.

As a regular and permitted user of the multi-use trail system within Sam Houston National Forest and other Texas forests, I'm anxiously awaiting the reopening of the multi-use trail systems. Photo: Dave Gorham

Yesterday was the first step to what I hope will be many more trail openings in the near future. But it’s only a small step: In Sam Houston National Forest just two sections of the Lone Star trail system have opened and only the 4-C Trail in Davy Crockett National Forest opened. If I’m not mistaken, these trails are not multi-use trails and are restricted to hikers only. I’ll have to continue waiting for the multi-use trails.

Recent rains have erased the drought from this region and that would seemingly be good news. However, all the rain in the sky can’t revive a dead tree. Worse, the rain has softened the ground making it easier for trees to uproot and topple. When it rains, it pours.

Forestry personnel and volunteers are working daily to clear trees that may pose a hazard to the trail systems, though there’s no hint at when the rest of the trails may open.

Finally: In my search for the latest news on the trail system closures I found the following article from 1986 on the Houston Chronicle‘s web site. “An environmentalist — one of six eventually arrested while protesting a planned controlled burn in a national forest near here — skipped from treetop to treetop as U.S. Forest Service rangers grimly chopped down the towering elms in an attempt to catch him. The rangers finally got their man Tuesday – but not before an officer was clobbered by a falling tree. Another protester – one of six of the Austin-based environmental group Earth First!, however, remained chained by the neck to a 50-ton, tree-crushing machine.”

“Skipped from treetop to treetop”? How could I not share that with you? Oh if only YouTube was around back then.



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