Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

The Race to Salvage Millions of Dead Trees in Texas

Dave Fehling / StateImpact Texas

Dead trees are cut, some made into chips south of downtown Houston .

The Texas drought killed millions of trees this summer but only a small percentage will be salvaged for lumber or even wood chips according to state’s Forest Service. And time may be running out.

“If you wait too long, they will not be suitable for most forest products.  Decay will set in and the trees will become much less useful,” said Burl Carraway, head of Sustainable Forestry at the Texas Forest Service office in College Station.

Carraway told StateImpact Texas that after a tree dies, it’s salvageable for another four months at best. The challenge is getting to the dead trees in time: many are deep within forests or on private land that may be inaccessible.

Marked for the ax: dead trees along running trail in Houston

After past natural disasters including Hurricanes Rita and Ike, the Forest Service estimated that less than 10 percent of downed trees were ever salvaged. The forest service expects even less to be salvaged from the drought since the dead trees are scattered more widely than after a hurricane, making it less cost effective to gather them up.

The Texas Forest Service estimates that so far, the drought has killed 100 million to 500 million trees statewide. One of the hardest hit areas is Houston. So far, the city’s parks department has overseen the removal of 8,000 dead trees—mostly pines—-with another 6,000 marked with fluorescent paint and slated for the axe in the next month.

“It’s really sickening. It’s so dramatic, so catastrophic,” said Victor Cordova. He’s an urban forester with the City of Houston. He said picnic areas that previously were well-shaded by 30 year old pines are now open and filled with sunlight. It’s hard to walk more than a few feet without stubbing your toe on a freshly cut tree stump.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Stumped: Victor Cordova in Houston's Memorial Park

“If you wait too long, they will not be suitable for most forest products.  Decay will set in and the trees will become much less useful,” said Burl Carraway, head of Sustainable Forestry at the Texas Forest Service office in College Station. “In our lifetime, we’ll never see this park the way it was once before,” said Cordova.

But Houston is one place where the dead trees, at least the ones from city property, are being salvaged. Just south of downtown, piles of timber are being turned into giant mounds of wood chips.

The Texas Forest Service’s Burl Carraway said wood chips from salvaged trees are being used to fuel generators to make electricity at two different facilities, one in Nacodoches, the other in Lufkin. Trees in better condition can be used to make lumber.

The best news may be what Carraway said he found in Bastrop State Park, decimated by fires this past September.

“And here we are just a few months later and we’re seeing some of the hardwood trees that are sprouting back from the base of the trees, which will then become the next generation of trees. So the point is the forests are very resilient , they can come back from these natural disasters.”


  • What about converting the unused wood or “bad” wood to firewood and sending it up to colder states to be distributed to needy families?

    • You don’t want to burn pine in a fireplace… even in the “colder states”.

    • cwampthing

      There are some resins in certain species that are not suitable for fireplaces.

  • I can see why trees would need to be removed in picnic areas and jogging trails , etc. as they pose a hazard but, shouldn’t the others be left to decay naturally? Wildlife uses dead trees as habitat as well…don’t they? Just asking…

    • Ruth R.

      Unfortunately Laura, they can affect other healthy trees as well.  I live in Houston & I have seen them have to take them down & I once thought like you, but they will infect the healthy trees.  

    • Tim

      Yes. Decaying trees also provide nutrients for the living trees. Trees that die due to disease need to be taken down. Drought trees pose no risk and are a valuable habitat resource.

    • Sarah

      We are still in dire need of rain here in Houston. Leaving the trees to decay would present a huge fire danger.

  • cwampthing

    I’ll take as much cypress or cear that you have. Where is it and when can I come by to ut and remove it?

    • cwampthing


  • Schristy23

    How do I know if my tree is dead or will come out next spring?

  • awoodelf

    @Rachel…there are those of us in this area that are struggling that could really use the firewood. I have an old 1920s farmhouse that I heat almost exclusively with firewood. I don’t have central heat or air. I am an older, recently unemployed school teacher, applying for jobs daily, and already struggling to stay warm this winter. I’ve spent most of my adult life helping others, I could sure use the help now. @jimincognito…I’ll deal with what the pine dishes out just to stay warm. And I don’t mind the work. I’ll come help…

    • Drahman

      Surley not all the dead trees are pine and people like awoodelf could really use the ones that aren’t going to build up creosote and cause a housefire hazard.  Is there any possibility that the useable ones be given out to those in need?

  • Anonymous

    Fifty years? – Desert. The new Sahara.

  • P3flyguy

    My daughters and I had an idea to fix the drought and flooding that happens every year. Let’s build a system of water pipes from teh Mississippi River to the Mid-West and Texas.  When the River is flooding from rain in the north, they can pump the extra water to the aquifers along the route to relieve the drought conditions.  We got the idea reading about Mesopotamia and the systems of moving water throughout that region thousands of years ago. Isn’t it about time our country does something to help us out before we do become a desert?

  • D Inserra

    Will any new trees be planted to help replace what was lost once the drought conditions pass

  • Sunsettreect

    What about chipping into biomass size? Grind up for mulch away from foundations.have an arborist or 5 briefly inspect for damaging insects.also try to ship to incineration power plants

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