Tom Byram, who works for the Texas Forest Service as Director of the Western Gulf Forest Tree Improvement Program, recently came into the KUT News Studios to share his experience during the Central Texas wildfires.
Byram: The Tree Improvement Program that’s hosted by the Texas Forest Service and run out of College Station and associated with Texas A&M University program is a tree breeding program that historically has established seed orchards and provided seed for the nursery industry and we’re talking about reforestation so this is bare root seedling nurseries kind of things. So, the Tree Improvement Program started in the 50′s here at Texas A&M. Dr. Bruce Sobel started the program. One of the first things he did was he decided that he would concentrate on things that could be evaluated in seedlings so he purposely selected drought resistance as one of the traits that he wanted to emphasize and along with that he concentrated on making selections in the Bastrop and Fayette County areas of lost pines. Primarily, within the Bastrop State Park.
KUT News: So, they focused on primarily on trees that they were trying to build up drought resistance in or –
Byram: Well, tree improvement is a fairly long term prospect, so whenever he started the program in 1951, he knew that he needed to show results in the short term so he decided to concentrate on a couple of treats that could be evaluated in seedlings. Wood specific gravity being one and drought resistance being the other so in trying to identify drought resistance, he was thinking in terms of being able to extend the range of loblolly pine, to increase the area that could be planted to commercial forests. The resource that Texas had that was unique was the lost pines so this is primarily in Bastrop County and in Fayette County.
Also, the western fringe, the continuous range in Grimes County and Leon County and those places also provided the likelihood that natural selection had occurred for drought resistance so Dr. Sobel went to primarily the Bastrop State Park, made selections, collected material, seed and sign material for grafting and so then he established – well he wasn’t here, but for about three years so they used that material to establish seed orchids in Jasper County over close to Magnolia Springs. It’s close to Jasper so there were a series of seed orchids that were established over there primarily with material from Bastrop State Park. So, we have that. All the material was tested for drought resistance before it was put into those orchids and so those trees are actually, are full sized trees, they’re managed as orchids for seed production and then this is available for reforestation and restoration.
KUT News: And you had a – you already had a whole kind of <inaudible 03:59> of seeds at the ready?
Byram: Yes. The orchids had been managed since the early 60′s, and so we pretty well did annual collection and we were supplying our bare root nursery which was the Indian Mountain Nursery outside of Alto so every year we produced 20 million trees or so at that facility until 2008, and the nursery was closed at that point because commercial people had taken over the business and the state no longer needed to be involved in that. We had seed in storage that was meant to supply that nursery and so this seed was with a commercial freezer company in Lufkin and they went out of business so we had eight pallets of seed, about 8,000 pounds, about 1,000 of which were drought hearty related to the lost pines area. What we did – the Brookster Brothers stepped forward and volunteered to store it for us in their commercial freezer at their distribution center in Lufkin so those pallets of seed were moved to them and they had put it in storage so I had a 1,000 of drought resistant seed that was collected, cleaned and in storage.
KUT News: And this was specifically for loblolly pine?
Byram: Loblolly pine yeah.
KUT News: Tell me a little bit about that kind of tree. Are there unique properties to it? What is the loblolly pine?
Byram: It’s <inaudible 05:40>. It’s natural range from New Jersey down to Florida and from the Atlantic Coast through to Texas. It’s discontinuous. The range is discontinuous at the Mississippi River and then there are a few isolated populations. The western most population is the lost pines.
KUT News: Farthest west in the country?
Byram: Yes, yeah.
KUT News: So, you had this resource and it was stored in one place, but then that program was discontinued and it was voluntarily stored in the same place, but I understand that there was some risk that you may not have been available.
Byram: Yes. Well, when the nursery closed, we had this supply of seed for which we had no use because the nursery was closed and so I had offered it for sale. The lost pines are known to grow more slowly than material from the eastern part of the range. They tend to be quite a bit more crooked and they tend to be forked so I got no bids whenever I tried to sell it so Brookster Brothers is storing this for us. They’re doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. I know it’s in their way and so I decided that since I didn’t have a buyer for it that I would get rid of it and I was within about three weeks of being able to round up transportation and crews to haul it off and I had made up my mind to do that and then we had the fire over the Labor Day weekend and all of a sudden, we had a resource that might have some value.
KUT News: What went through your mind when you heard about the fire?
Byram: Well, first of all, it’s heart rendering to lose such an important part of the ecosystem, even if the loss is temporary. We know that – well, it was cut over in the 1880′s and it came back and it very likely will come back on its own, but that we have the seed that’s related to those trees that we can come back and do some restoration is really nice, yeah.
KUT News: And so what – how will this help?
Byram: Well, the way it works in nature, of course, is that the trees reseed. The surviving trees, the trees around the edges and that kind of thing will seed back in. In this particular instance, there’s such a large area impacted that sometimes those edge trees are a long long way away and seed falls fairly close to the parent tree. So, while it would occur on its own, it would take quite a bit of time and so being able to plant seedlings is a much more dependable way to begin the restoration process.
First of all, this truly is a replant. You can’t restore hundred year old trees. These are seedlings. The other thing, too, is a sampling of the genetics that was there at the time of the fire so the genes are a sample of what was there, but because it’s seed and it’s sexually reproduced, all the genes are stirred up together and that kind of thing so you’re not doing a restoration of exactly what was there. You’re putting the genes back on the landscape and mother nature is going to have to do a selection process to recreate things. It’s a way to give mother nature a jump start.
KUT News: And how long will that take?
Byram: I don’t understand the question.
KUT News: Oh, like how long would it take to restore, I mean, it’s going to take decades, right?
Byram: Well, to have those hundred year old trees back, yeah. The planning process – we have seed with – this year we disbursed seed to Obregon, State of Louisiana, State of Oklahoma and to our West Texas nursery in Idalou so there will be seedlings available next planting season from this seed. It was – with the fire the first of September, we best we could do with that seed was to get it into the nursery this spring so it will be available next winter. That’s year one. Because the damage was so extensive because it burned down the mineral soil, they are erosion problems along with drought with bare soil there will heat problems so it’s likely that the replanting will take several years to be complete. Once that’s started – once the trees are established, they should come back and take care of themselves.
KUT News: On a personal note – when you realize that you had come close to losing this, but you were able to kind of to be there when you needed it, how did it feel?
Byram: Oh, it’s very satisfying and there’s some closure in this because the lost pines were important in initiating the tree improvement effort. The tree improvement effort in the Southern Pines started at Texas A&M and then subsequently programs were started at NC State University, University of Florida and the USDA Forest Service also had research programs that predated ours, but and also supplemented our program, but in Texas, the lost pines were instrumental in giving us start and so that we now can return the favor and help –
KUT News: Sorry, I’m rolling again. I’m losing my train of thought here where I stopped because I had to stop to free up some space. Maybe you can rewind just a little bit. You were talking about how the program then could kind of repay cause it started around the lost pines and then it could repay. Could you explain that again to me?
Byram: The lost pines were instrumental in giving us our start in the Tree Improvement Program in the 50′s, when researchers here at Texas A&M used that seed source to jumpstart the program and prove the value of tree improvement and the ability of artificial selection to change or to identify those trees that we wanted to use in our program. The fact that we have those seed orchids, we have seed in storage that relate back to that population and that we can provide that seed in a timely fashion to allow restoration and reforestation is hugely important to us in the community.
KUT News: Just to kind of make sure I understand it fully. There was – you had these seeds because there was a nursery that was taking them and then can you kind of tell that story again just I’m not sure I quite follow you.
Byram: Well, the Texas Forest Service started nurseries in 1940, and so that was to provide seedlings for reforestation of commercial forests in East Texas and so that nursery was operated as a bare root nursery until 2008. At that time, the nursery – when the Texas Forest Service entered the nursery business, there were no other sources of bare root seedlings for commercial forestry. Over a period of years, industry started their own nursery and were also supplying seedlings to the private landowners. So, the decision was made in 2008, to close that nursery. We had established seed orchids for the purpose of supporting the nursery operation by supplying seed so whenever the bare root nursery was closed, we still had the seed orchids and we had prior harvest that were in storage at that point. So, we had seed and no place to use it basically.
KUT News: Until…
Byram: Until yeah and so because this is state property – my first attempt was to try to find a market for it and to sell it and recoup some of our costs that’s involved in producing seed and because the lost pines, while they are particularly good and acquiring water, they have very fibrous root system, more fibrous than the normal for a loblolly pine, they’re very good at managing water so they do well on droughtier sites, but they also grow more slowly and they tend to be very crooked trees and they tend to have a lot of forks. They don’t have a lot of commercial applications. Because of that, there was no one willing to buy the seed.
KUT News: Would you mind showing me that bag again? I can roll some tape and kind of explain what we’re looking at. So, kind of just maybe walk me – pretend I’m blind and maybe can you kind of explain what we’re looking at because a listener won’t be able to see it.
Byram: Well, what we do here in College Station is primarily research so we keep research quantities of seed and pollen here to support the program so this is not typically where we would store material. The big commercial freezers, they handle things on pallets and forklifts and that kind of thing, but to have seed on hand I went and got a 60 pound box and brought it over here so that we could provide people as they need seed. Typically, seed is stored in 60 pound boxes. They are approximately I don’t know 15 inches by 18 inches by 12 or so. Seed are dried prior to storage. They store – they’re frozen at low moisture contents. Loblolly pine seed can store for decades under these conditions. We had a material that was collected in 1992, that we recently ran germination tests on and it was 95% germination so it will store for a long time. The Bastrop seed source tends to – the seed tend to be small so there is approximately 18,000 to 22,000 seed per pound so in a 60 pound box, you can do the math, but that’s a lot of seed.
KUT News: Do you think I could grab a picture of that?
Byram: This won’t be anything you can use I don’t think; it’s a little biology here. The seed actually has a wing on it at which aids in its dispersal. Whenever the tree drops it, it will be carried by the wind at some distance from the tree. Loblolly pine seed are fairly heavy. They don’t travel very far so that’s part of the problem with allowing mother nature to take over the restoration in the park because that fire was so devastating in places, it’s a long way to a live tree that can produce seed. Anyway, once the seed is extracted, it’s cleaned and dried and then it can be stored frozen for decades.
KUT News: The seeds that were used to – or that are going to be used that are being turned to seedlings now, how were they? Were they years old or were they relatively recently harvested?
Byram: The crop that we’re using this year was collected in 1992, and the germination test on that seed after having been in storage since 1992, was 95% germination.
KUT News: So, that’s actually the crop that’s going to go back into the ground in Bastrop?
Byram: Yeah. The seed orchids in – the older seed orchids actually had more parents in it than the younger seed orchids so preferentially we’re going to use the oldest seed first because it has more genetic diversity than what we will be collecting off of the existing orchids yeah, but because this is going to be a multiyear process, we don’t know how much seed are eventually going to be needed for this restoration effort, we currently have an eight acre orchid just south of Jasper in Jasper County that we have put back under management and we’re going to be harvesting seed this fall to replenish our supply as it goes out.
KUT News: Just to be on the safe side?
Byram: Just to be on the safe side, yeah.
KUT News: Awesome.