Dead trees and drought - an overview

In the summer of 2011, Texas faced its worst drought in more than 100 years. The lack of rainfall combined with triple-digit temperatures for 56 consecutive days caused thousands of pine and hardwood trees to die across East Texas.

In the National Forests in Texas, especially in the Sam Houston and Davy Crockett National Forests, dead and dying trees are causing an unprecedented safety issue. The Angelina and Sabine National Forests further to the east are not experiencing widespread mortality at this time. About 90,000 acres of National Forest are moderately to severely affected by the drought and evidence suggests that tree will continue to die and recovery could take some time.

Public safety is our most immediate concern. Dead trees can snap and fall unpredictably. Our first priority is removal of hazard trees in recreation areas, near houses, outbuildings, and public thoroughfares. Hazard tree removal will be accomplished using both salvage timber sales and by cut and leave treatments when appropriate. The choice is dictated by whether the dead trees have any market value. Because of the extreme drought conditions, dead trees are only retaining their market value for saw timber for a few months. Decay beyond this time prevents use of the dead tree for timber, making it uneconomical for commercial harvest.

At this time, the Sam Houston National Forest has sold one salvage timber sale in the Stubblefield Recreation Area, with three more salvage timber sales ready to advertise in the near future in the Cagle and Scott’s Ridge Recreation Areas. The Davy Crockett National Forest has completed one salvage timber sale and has three more ready for advertisement in the Ratcliff Recreation Area. The Ratcliff Recreation Area site has considerable historic significance. We are consulting with the Texas Historic Commission about the best way to remove the hazardous trees and protect this important historic site.

Depending on local market conditions, more salvage timber sales will be advertised in fiscal year 2012. However, the scale and scope of tree mortality on National Forests cannot be met by salvage timber sales alone. Fortunately, other tools and opportunities to effectively address drought conditions and tree mortality are available and we are actively engaged in also using these authorities. This includes continuing to prepare traditional timber sales for areas of the National Forest not yet experiencing extensive tree mortality, which also helps to ensure there is a reliable supply to the local forest products industry.

The Forest Service is also partnering with groups such as the National Wild Turkey Federation to facilitate additional projects using stewardship contract authority. Congress provided this authority to the Forest Service until 2013 to facilitate restoration of healthy forests by allowing a contracted exchange of marketable timber for the performance of other services that benefit and restore the National Forest. This authority proved its value during recovery operations after Hurricane Ike, when a stewardship contract effectively provided for the removal of downed trees that posed a wildfire hazard. Stewardship contract authority may prove increasingly important if tree mortality continues to escalate and timber marketability reduces.

The National Forests and Grasslands in Texas take our duty to care for the land and serve people serious. Additionally, we agree that removing dead timber from National Forests is beneficial, not only to forest health, but also to those who make their living in the forest products industry.