DALLAS – Pockets of brown, sickly trees mar the traditionally majestic pine woods in East Texas. Leafless oaks can be seen across the state. Even native drought-resistant cedars are dying off in some areas after proliferating during the last century.
These are the effects of a historic dry spell that is forecast to grip Texas well into 2012 and could alter the state's landscape for years. Already, the lack of rain and extreme heat have taken a brutal toll on forests and city parks.
State foresters are watching insects ravage acres of drought-weakened trees while city officials are facing millions of dollars in costs to haul away fallen limbs and debris from parks.
"This is just so unprecedented," said Jim Houser, Texas Forest Service's forest health coordinator for Central and West Texas. "We're seeing so many trees die that it's going to affect the forest in a major way."
Although much of Texas is prairie and desert land, forests are abundant in the central and eastern regions. The undulating, wooded Hill Country spreads out from Austin and the dense Piney Woods covers the area along the Louisiana border. Texas forests are home to a variety of recreation and to a multi-billion-dollar timber industry.
But through September, the state has averaged only 8.5 inches of rain, nearly 13 inches less than normal. The past year is now the driest on record in the state. Forestry experts won't know the long-term impact until next spring when it becomes clear how many trees are dead and how many became dormant.
Much of the damage is hard to prevent but some landowners are struggling to keep their trees alive. Jim and Alexandra Prevratil set up sprinklers with more than 2,000 feet of hose to water a stand of oaks, elms and dogwoods close to their home on their rural 70-acre property an hour east of Dallas. During the worst of the summer, when temperatures were above 100 for 40 consecutive days in the area, the Prevratils watered around the clock with their well water.
"We're doing everything that we humanly can," said Alexandra Prevratil.
Forest officials said some areas may not return to normal for more than a decade.
Healthy pines normally produce enough sap to help repel pine engraver beetles, which attack the area under the tree's bark, said Joe Pase, the Texas Forest Service's forest health specialist for the region. But many are defenseless now. In oaks, he said, several different fungi are invading drought-stressed trees, the most common being hypoxylon fungus.
Mark Simmons, director of the ecosystem design group at The University of Texas at Austin's Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, said the loss of cedars, which have spread widely in Central Texas, will lead to the return of native grasses and wildflowers in many areas.
The state's timber industry, which employs 63,000 people and accounts for $23.7 billion in economic activity, is suffering not only from the drought but from wildfires that have raged through the dry forests. East Texas has lost more than $97 million in timber to wildfires since Nov. 15, according to the Texas Forest Service.
With the forests offering less sustenance for wildlife, homeowners are reporting more animals on their property foraging for food, said Mark Klym of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Deer seeking acorns and pecans are particularly common, and more hummingbirds are coming to feeders.
"We're not going to have the food out there for the animals," he said.
Cities have park departments to protect their trees, but they are vastly overmatched. Thousands of trees have died in Memorial Park in Houston. Earlier this month the Houston City Council approved a request from the parks department for $4.5 million to remove about 15,000 dead trees in parks and esplanades. Its annual tree-removal budget is only $350,000.
"We're struggling with a lot of pine trees," said Joe Turner, director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department.
Fort Worth forester Melinda Adams said the city is using its one water truck to help young trees and those with historical significance, such as Traders Oak, near the site of an 1800s trading post.
For one Dallas homeowner, the toll can already be seen in the giant dead cottonwood in her front yard. Suzanne Sudduth planted the tree in memory of her mother 16 years ago, and it had grown to be twice as tall as her house. By midsummer, the leaves were brown.
"I've lived here 17 years and I've never seen anything like this," said Sudduth, who had been watering her trees at least once a week.
Steve Houser, an arborist who owns Wylie-based tree service company Arborilogical Services, said the growing number of dead trees may pose a new danger in storms when they start falling or dropping limbs. Meanwhile, residents have learned not to take their trees for granted.
"The public starts to pay more attention, take care of the ones they have and plant more," he said.