I love traveling. Seeing the world might mean more to me than almost any other thing I enjoy–reading, music, film, Oregon football, baseball. Maybe not good beer or bourbon, but it’s pretty close. While I love traveling overseas, I also am deeply enamored of seeing this wonderful country. I do my best to see all I can. I’ve been to 47 states and, in my quixotic life goal of visiting each of the nation’s counties, 41.8% of American counties.
In wandering around, I’ve fallen in a love with a lot of places. Some of them are expected–Yellowstone, Portland, New Orleans. But others have surprised me, staying in my thoughts much longer than expected–the immigrant neighborhoods of Queens, the tallgrass prairie remnants on the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma, Oregon’s McKenzie River, the way when you cross Raton Pass between New Mexico and Colorado that you really feel you are entering a new state more than any other border I’ve crossed, the trails above the Cumberland Gap.
One of those unexpected places is Bastrop State Park in central Texas. This was my favorite place to hike during my years in Texas. The Hill Country was pretty cool, but I found myself really attracted to Bastrop. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Oregon, but I’ve always been drawn to places with tall evergreens. Bastrop State Park is a protected space because it has a remnant population of pines that you normally associate with east Texas. The trails were pretty nice, not too crowded. There are also great birds back there. Saw a whole lot of summer tanagers and pileated woodpeckers. Neither are the rarest species in the country, but both are great birds to see. There are also painted buntings, but I never saw those unfortunately. The park is also home to the Houston toad. This threatened species lives primarily in Bastrop State Park. Its breeding grounds are there and the park is closed during the mating months of February and March. There are maybe 3-4000 Houston toads left. The park’s signature species, you could easily hear them around the many ponds in the park.
At least until today. Bastrop State Park is burning. At least 2/3 of the park is toasted and I have little doubt that most of the rest will soon be gone. The extreme drought combined with the winds coming off of Tropical Storm Lee (but without the much needed rains) to create terrible fire conditions in central Texas.
While I’m sure this forest has a long history with fire, in the isolated spots of the world that are still semi-wild, fires, hurricanes, and other natural phenomena can be the death knell for species. For instance, when Hurricane Iniki struck Kauai in 1992, it wiped out the last of the Kauai thrush, a bird that, like the rest of the native birds of Hawaii, had been devastated by the introduction of non-native species, agriculture, and climate change. I am skeptical that the Houston toad can recover. Its populations had been fading even at Bastrop, due to climate change, drought, pesticides, and other factors. Another species on the verge of extinction.
Moreover, it was just beautiful out there, so not central Texas, a refuge from the rapid overdevelopment of the I-35 corridor. The forests out there will recover eventually, as they have over thousands of years of evolving with fire regimes. But with so few places to go in central Texas to get away, so few places that aren’t developed, so few pieces of public land, this is a real loss. There will always be other places to love, in Texas and elsewhere, but more and more frequently, it seems that the places I love are gone.