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From the Fall '99, Volume 24, No. 2 Issue of Horizon
Story and photos by Rick Turner
Staff Ecologist

Reprinted by permission of The Nature Conservancy of Texas, copyright 2000


A severe windstorm creates opportunities for ecosystem restoration in Texas national forests.

The devastation is awe-inspiring. Debris stretches in front of us to almost to the horizon. Whole groves of pines, once more than 100 feet high, lie toppled on the ground. Ripped out of the soil by their roots, the trees crisscross in a chaotic heap, resembling a giant game of pick-up sticks. Other trees, their trunks snapped in half, point toward the bright blue sky like lonely sentinels, giving testimony that on this spot a tall forest once stood. Is this yet another example of deforestation that has become so common in the modern world? No - what we are seeing is the result of a natural event that has occurred sporadically for eons in the forests of East Texas. It is a definitive reminder of the constantly changing face of ecosystems and of the powerful natural forces that shape them. 

In February 1998, a storm with wind speeds of hurricane force raked across central East Texas, causing extensive damage to forests across the region. The damage was especially severe in the Angelina and Sabine national forests. More than 100,000 acres of national forest land were affected by the storm, and an estimated 10,000 acres were extensively damaged. Much of the damage occurred in areas managed as habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis). Many of the birds' nest trees were destroyed by the storm, and since this species constructs its nests only in mature, living pine trees, the loss of timber was significant. Habitat for several rare plant species, including southern lady's-slipper orchid (Cypripedium kentuckiense), slender wake-robin (Trillium gracile) and Mohlenbrock's umbrella sedge (Cyperus grayioides), was also affected.

At first glance, the damage might seem to have destroyed these forests, but in the extensively damaged areas the storm has provided a unique opportunity to "start over" - that is, to restore the landscape to more closely resemble the natural ecosystems once supported here. The uplands of East Texas were logged of their old-growth forests by the early part of this century. Afterward, much of the land was converted to agricultural uses, but most was subsequently abandoned during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Shortly thereafter, the Angelina and Sabine national forests were established on this altered landscape. The plant communities that have grown up on the abandoned fields now are often quite different in species composition from the original forests. The suppression of natural fires on the upland landscape has resulted in further changes in plant communities.

To aid in the restoration and reforestation effort, The Nature Conservancy of Texas worked with U.S. Forest Service staff to produce an ecological map of the entire windstorm area using an ecosystem model recently developed by the Conservancy. The Ecological Classification System (ECS) was developed by collecting soil, landform and vegetation data from natural plant communities and analyzing them using sophisticated mathematical techniques. The result of the five-year project is a model that predicts the natural plant communities on the landscape as influenced by important environmental factors, regardless of the condition of the current vegetation.

To create the ecological map, databases containing soil and landform information were analyzed in a computerized mapping program known as a geographic information system (GIS), which divided the landscape into ecological units called landtype phases. Each landtype phase has soil, landform and vegetation characteristics that distinguish it from other landtype phases. Ecologists tested the accuracy of the GIS map by visiting areas on the national forests and comparing them with their mapped landtype phase designation. The completed map is being used by national forest managers to help select the appropriate tree species and the reforestation techniques needed to restore natural communities to damaged areas on the landscape. It is also being used to locate additional areas of undamaged forest that are ecologically suitable for managing red-cockaded woodpecker habitat.

As the U.S. Forest Service moves toward ecosystem management of national forest lands, the information provided by the ECS is proving to be an important tool in making ecologically sound management decisions. The windstorm provided an excellent opportunity to integrate ecological information into restoration planning and to refine and test the process of mapping ecosystems on the national forests. The long-term goal is to apply the mapping methods developed in the windstorm area to all of the national forests in Texas, which will serve to promote the protection and restoration of biodiversity on these important public lands.

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