Half a billion trees gone? January 14 2014

There is more heartbreak in the ongoing saga surrounding the Lone Star State's trees. The Texas Forest Service is reporting that a minimum of 100 million and as many as 500 million trees — between two and 10 percent of Texas' estimated 4.9 billion — have died as a result of the epic drought of 2011. That's only including trees with a diameter of five inches or larger on forested land, and doesn't touch the approximate four million acres burned by drought-induced wildfires that raged across the state.

Concern on the part of state officials and citizens alike prompted this preliminary survey, taken by localized forestry service professionals and compiled by the agency's Forest Inventory & Analysis program. CultureMap was first to report that the greater Houston area is expected to lose at least 66 million trees due to the drought.

The Texas Forest Service notes three specific multi-county regions that were hardest hit: Chief among them are the Houston-area counties of Harris, Montgomery, Grimes, Madison and Leon, which "saw extensive mortality among loblolly pines."

Those pines, which are commercially valuable for their timber, are being put to good use as lumber, pulp, paper mill chips or biomass. But that does little to assuage the pain of a diminished canopy, nor the financial burden associated with chopping and hauling the dead trees, then revitalizing the forested areas with new saplings.

Also heavily affected were Ashe junipers in West Texas, as well as cedars and post oaks in Bastrop and Caldwell counties.

The agency claims that a more comprehensive and verifiable census will be taken aerially in the spring, when budding leaves will indicate whether trees are truly dead or simply went dormant early this year to protect themselves from the extreme environmental factors.

"During this time of year, it’s difficult to tell in some cases if a tree is truly dead. And keep in mind that the drought is ongoing," Sustainable Forestry department head Burl Carraway said in a statement. "We fully expect mortality percentages to increase if the drought continues."