Courtesy of The Texas Real Estate Advocacy & Defense Coalition
Kinder Morgan has frantically raced to clear Golden-cheeked Warbler habitat on its 145-mile route through the Hill Country in less than two weeks since its endangered species permit was okayed Feb. 15.
In its mad rush, the company has endangered much more than the small songbird that began its protected breeding season on March 1. Tree clearing crews have implemented almost none of the required preventive measures to reduce the spread of oak wilt. The disease is almost certainly now being spread over a much larger area around the pipeline route, because the federal agencies approved clearing in the worst season for transmission of the disease (February – July) and Kinder Morgan ignored the treatments that would have reduced the threat.
Plaintiffs in a lawsuit contesting the federal permit have submitted evidence today of widespread non-compliance documented by a oak wilt expert and a group of biologists, landowners and volunteers.
The Central Texas region has long been home to large populations of oak species, especially live oaks, which are an important feature of the terrain. Central Texas live oaks can take 50 to 100 years to reach a mature size and are about 40 to 50 feet tall with a broad, thick canopy. Mature live oaks provide habitat for wildlife and invaluable shade for all sorts of animals, including domestic stock and ourselves. In addition to Ashe juniper, live oaks serve as a critical component of Central Texas and Hill Country habitat for the Golden-cheeked Warbler, a bird that requires these oaks for nesting and foraging sites, using mature Ashe juniper bark for nesting material.
Oak wilt has spread through and devastated large areas of Central Texas and the Hill Country over the last 40 years, leaving thousands of large, dead oaks in its wake. Oak wilt is a disease caused by a fungus and is moved from location to location by sap-feeding beetles commonly called picnic beetles. Beetles visit a spore mat produced on red oaks, get the sticky disease spores on their bodies, and then fly to a fresh wound on an oak and deposit the disease spore. Oak wilt is heat-sensitive, producing spore mats on Red Oaks during cool, wet periods, generally during winter and early spring in Central Texas. Spring is a period when disease spore is readily available and beetle populations are high and active. The most dangerous period in Central Texas for the spread of oak wilt to new locations is from Feb. 1 until June 30.
The Permian Highway Pipeline will require clearing and preparing the right-of-way for trenching and pipe installation, which involves the removal of a large number of oak trees. In addition, the pipeline right-of-way has to be cleared and left open to aerial viewing, meaning that tree canopy has to be removed.
The equipment used often damages oak trees in the vicinity of the clearing activities. Large equipment accidentally hits trees that are to remain, felled trees can break limbs on trees just beyond the easement boundaries, tub grinders can fling large wood debris and wound trees that are to remain. All of these wounds need to be treated as soon as they occur. Broken branches need to be properly pruned and treated as soon as they happen.
This type of aggressive and consistent maltreatment of peripheral oaks, which is often unanticipated and unnoticed, is incredibly important to avoid.
“Based on the foregoing matters, and my expertise as an arborist, it is my opinion that right-of-way activity (i.e., clearing, trenching, and related earth-moving actions), in the Central Texas and nearby Hill Country area any time during the Feb. 1 through June 30 time frame is likely to increase the spread of Oak Wilt in the area and damage and reduce the critical Oak-Juniper habitat required by the Golden-cheeked Warbler,” said David Vaughan, an arborist certified by the International Society of Arboriculture.
The disease is difficult to control, and it continues to spread across the Central Texas oak forest, destroying new, previously un-infected stands of oak trees. The spread of oak wilt is greatly accelerated by activities such as removing, pruning, or wounding oaks. These activities produce fresh wounds that attract the sap-feeding beetles. For this reason, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, the Texas Forest Service, and the Texas Chapter of International Society of Arboriculture produced Oak Wilt Guidelines suggesting to not wound oaks in Oak wilt areas of Texas from Feb.1 through June 30.
Clearing oaks during such a fragile timeframe could potentially cause irrevocable damage to the Central Texas landscape and the species that call it home.
The Texas Real Estate Advocacy & Defense Coalition (TREAD) is a member-based advocacy organization that preserves and protects landowner rights.