Oak Wilt: Eric Beckers of the Texas Forest Service on Prevention, Management and Funding for Land-Owners Fighting the Disease
Louis B. Parks

Writer Louis B. Parks shares information from experts about sustainable approaches to life in the Central Texas Hill Country.

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"Share information, not oak wilt," is the motto Eric Beckers of the Texas Forest Service proposes for anyone who lives in the Wimberley area.

Oak wilt quickly kills most infected trees. Wilting leaves turn brown at the margins (inset) and fall as the tree dies.
Photo Credit and Caption: USDA Forest Service
Beckers says one of the most dangerous things about property-damaging oak wilt is that some people believe there's nothing they can do to prevent it.

"You can let nature take its course," Beckers says. "You can do that, but your neighbors may not agree with it," he adds with a grim laugh.

"Wimberley has been dodging oak wilt for many years, but it's an epidemic in the Hill Country," Beckers says. "Many surrounding areas have been devastated by oak wilt, which kills trees that add so much to our local property values. Wherever human activity is, it tends to crop up.

"Wimberley is not a hot bed area - yet - but there is more and more activity around Wimberley. There's a newly discovered, five-acre disease center, growing very rapidly, out on Mt. Sharp Road. We're going to put a big loop around it and hope we stop it in most directions.

"You do have a large red oak population on the hills around you. If they start becoming infected then we'll have "spotting out" (to other areas), like with a hot fire."

What may surprise many local tree owners is that the Texas Forest Service can offer financial help to fight oak wilt.

"I'm always pushing prevention, but a lot of folks who invite me to talk are already inflicted with the disease, so we talk about management in the field. That includes destroying diseased red oaks and severing roots with trenching to stop the tree-to-tree overland spread. That's very difficult and can be expensive. But it's the means of stopping the disease spread.

"We think it's such an issue that we will cover 40 percent of your removal expense on Spanish oak that dies of oak wilt. These are U.S. Forest Service dollars," Beckers says.

"We cost share up to $2,000 per landowner. When (several) landowners share, we can add that up to a maximum of $10,000. We could (for example) work with Woodcreek if they wanted to control some of their disease centers. If they have 8 or 10 land owners involved, we could cost share on a trench that might contain it."

These days, most local land owners have a least a basic knowledge of oak wilt prevention; clean all cutting tools before and after making cuts, do not cut oaks in the spring - March and April are the worst time - and thoroughly paint over any cut in an oak immediately after making it.

Unfortunately, many land-owners, and a lot of tree cutting companies, will clean their tools only before the day's work begins. And many will do the wound painting only at the end of the day, or end of a job. Not only does that mean many cuts are usually missed, but it can also be far too late.

"Painting immediately is the key," Beckers says. "We've actually captured those beetles on an open wound within 10 minutes."

Fortunately for Hays County residents, only a small percentage of the beetles that attack trees carry the oak wilt spore. That's a good thing for us, Beckers says.

"Oak wilt is not a good distributor of itself," says Becker, a seventh generation Texan whose great-great grandmother lived in Hays County. "If it was, all our oak trees would have been gone long ago. It has been documented in this area since the 1930s. It's been known since the '50s that human activity is a distributor of this disease. We should practice good preventative measures, especially in areas such as Wimberley where there is not yet a lot of oak wilt.

"We need to understand the full life-cycle of the disease to prevent it," he says.

And make sure our neighbors understand, too.

"We can sanitize tools and paint wounds and avoid (cuts) in the spring months, that works on our property, but if our neighbors are not destroying (diseased) Spanish oaks, we are continually threatened."

One thing is certain, oak wilt is a problem not likely to disappear in the Wimberley area for a long time.

"With the mono-culture of oaks we've nurtured in the Hill Country over 150 years of land management," Beckers says, "we are looking at a disease that will not run out of hosts."

(Beckers was among local and state experts heading free 45-minute sessions at Wimberley Eco Fest 2009. The day of entertainment and ideas was sponsored by CARD, the Citizens Alliance for Responsible Development, a not-for-profit Wimberley area organization of volunteers. CARD has been active in trying to preserve the natural beauty that makes our area so appealing and desirable.)