BASTROP COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — The Stengl Lost Pines Biological Field Station is one of the University of Texas’ most prominent field labs. Last month, the Pine Pond Fire swept through the area, destroying much of that data.
“This one burned approximately 800 acres, about 350 of which are on our field station here,” said Steven Gibson, site manager at the Stengl Field Station.
The fire burned from Aug. 11 to 14, obliterating 100-year-old trees and decades worth of data. Gibson said the fire has caused what is essentially a “hard reset” on their research.
“We’re starting from from bare earth in hard-burned areas like this.” Gibson expects it will take years to recover from this most recent fire.
Stengl Lost Pines and decades of data
Field stations are essential for researchers at UT. The Stengl Field Station is located just west of Bastrop, near Smithville. “Anything that has to do with the forest ecology, particularly the lost pine system occurs out here,” Gibson said.
The Lost Pines ecosystem is a unique one. “This is a really interesting forest. It’s basically the western most outpost of the south eastern forest,” said Brian Sedio, a UT assistant professor.
Sedio has used the field station and the data collected there to study the chemicals in trees and how they interact with predators in the area.
This data has been gathered since the 1990s. Gibson and a slew of researchers have mapped the various ecosystems of the forest.
The forest is a mature one, many of the trees are over 100 years old. Because of the age of the trees, scientists are able to study forests over longer periods. “That information is, is very valuable in detecting trends, particularly as it comes to things like climate change,” Gibson said.
Sedio said these field stations act as a control for experiments and research. “Field stations allow us to create a baseline of, of ecological data through long-term monitoring,”
“You can think of a field station like a library, right?” Gibson said.
“The library, per se, is the building with the walls and the doors and the windows. But that doesn’t have a lot of value, the values the books inside. This data, this research that’s been collected, those are the books inside the library.”
Gibson said many researchers are students will contact him about specific data. He said they ask about data gathered on different ecosystems or different trees. What sort of fungus grow in one part of the forest? Which species of trees are prominent in a different part of the forest?
All of this data and long-term monitoring makes it possible to answer these questions with relative ease.
‘Hard reset’ at the field station
After the fire, all that research has to start over. “We have to remap all of our different sub habitats,” Gibson said.
Many of the trees were reduced to ash. All that remains is a 12-foot deep hole where the tree once was. Others are thin blackened toothpicks that could collapse from a slight breeze.
The fire isn’t all bad news. “The forest going forward, it’ll be a mosaic of different forest types that have experienced different histories and different disturbances,” Sedio said.
This means researchers will be able to study wildfires and how they impact mature forests. Some parts of the forest are untouched, while others are completely obliterated.
The library has to be rebuilt from scratch. According to Gibson, this will take time, people and funding. He said “they’re trying to do 40 years worth of work in the next couple of years.”
Returning to normal after the wildfire
The station has been closed since the fire, but they plan to reopen soon. First, they need to make it safe for students and researchers to return. This will take some time, Gibson said.
They also want to give the forest some time to recover from the fire. The recent trauma making wildlife scarce.
Gibson said he looks forward to people returning. “Oftentimes it’s what sparks that enthusiasm. It’s what sparks that curiosity in students.” He said for many students, Stengl has been a game changer.
“One walk through the forest and discovering things that they had never seen before just completely changed the trajectory of their, of their academic career.”