Davis Mountains Forest Thinning Project Underway

Nature Conservancy and Texas A&M Forest Service effort aims to reduce threat of wildfire, improve forest resilience to drought

Alpine, Texas | May 21, 2015

The Nature Conservancy and Texas A&M Forest Service are collaborating on a forest thinning project at the Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve to improve the health of critical forest habitat and help the preserve better withstand impacts of climate change. The work is being conducted across 350 acres of the 33,000-acre West Texas preserve, which contains some of the last stands of ponderosa pine trees found in Texas. This work is not expected to impede visitor access to the portions of the preserve that are open to the public.

The Davis Mountains are one of three major sky island ecosystems in Texas, in which isolated mountains are surrounded by a “sea” of desert. Sky islands are considered a high priority for conservation because they contain species found nowhere else in the state, including the ponderosa pine and a number of endemic plants and animals. They also provide important habitat for many wide-ranging species such as mountain lions and black bears.

“The forests of the Davis Mountains have endured a variety of setbacks in recent years, including severe drought, destructive wildfires, extended cold snaps and infestations from the Western pine bark beetle, all of which have resulted in high levels of tree mortality across the region,” said Charlotte Reemts, research and monitoring ecologist for The Nature Conservancy. “By selectively thinning out the dead and smaller trees and leaving the larger, healthier trees standing, we can boost the resilience of the forest and help this important ecosystem better withstand these threats in the future.”

A 100-year history of fire suppression across the region has also taken a toll on the health of the forests, causing tree density to increase beyond sustainable levels. During droughts and extreme temperatures, an overabundance of trees and vegetation must compete for a limited supply of water, which creates drier conditions and weakens the entire forest. Such conditions can lead to catastrophic wildfires. That was the case in 2011 and 2012, when three separate wildfires burned across the Davis Mountains, affecting more than three-quarters of the Conservancy’s preserve.

“During the fires of 2011 and 2012, we saw firsthand that our best defense against catastrophic wildfire is to fight these fires before they start, through good stewardship,” said Laura Huffman, Texas state director for The Nature Conservancy. “The areas of our preserve where we’d utilized prescribed burning and tree thinning fared far better than areas where these forest management techniques had not yet been applied.”

The work is being conducted in and around the preserve’s mesic canyons, which are the coolest and wettest parts of the Davis Mountains. These canyons shelter species like ponderosa pines—which require cooler temperatures—from extreme weather, offering them the best suitable habitat. They are also expected to harbor the largest number of plant and wildlife species in the future, which makes this region a top priority for climate adaptation strategies.

The project is being funded by a $250,000 grant from The Wildlife Conservation Society and $170,000 in funding that The Nature Conservancy has secured through private fundraising efforts. The Texas A&M Forest Service is also providing $80,000 worth of consulting and technical guidance for the two-year effort.

“Texas A&M Forest Service’s partnership with The Nature Conservancy in the Davis Mountains Preserve Forest Health Project fits perfectly with our mission to conserve and protect the forests of Texas,” said Jim Houser, forest health coordinator for Texas A&M Forest Service.

Crews began the initial thinning work in late April and are expected to complete the thinning project by 2017.

“Beyond improving the health of the forests in the Davis Mountains, we are looking to develop a body of science that can inform forest management techniques in Texas’ other sky island systems, the Guadalupe Mountains and the Chisos Mountains, near Big Bend,” added Huffman.

For more information about The Nature Conservancy’s work in Texas, visit nature.org/Texas.


The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at unprecedented scale, and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in more than 65 countries, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.

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