Mike Valescu loves traveling from his home in Austin, Texas, to nearby Bastrop County, where the air is fresh and he is surrounded by beautiful loblolly pine trees.
So after wildfires in September 2011 charred 34,000 acres there — claiming two lives, obliterating 1,700 homes, and destroying a 6,565-acre ecosystem inside Bastrop State Park — Valescu knew he had to help restore the area to its natural beauty.
“When people visit our state — and that area in particular — I didn’t want them to see this burned area,” Valescu said. “I want visitors to see that place restored to its pristine beauty. I want to show the world what it once was and what it can be. For me, that’s a point of pride.”
TreeFolks — a nonprofit that empowers Central Texans to build stronger communities through planting and caring for trees — led the restoration effort.
“During the wildfires, 5,000 individual parcels of private land were affected, and hundreds of residents lost everything they owned,” said Matt Mears, reforestation manager for TreeFolks. “A unique ecosystem was also heavily damaged. Bastrop’s loblolly pine forest — known as the Lost Pines because of its isolation from the eastern range of loblolly pine — provided clean air and water, soil stabilization, habitat for wildlife including the endangered Houston toad, and a beautiful place to live. Those benefits were erased from the landscape by the fire.”
Because of its commitment to jump-start recovery in Bastrop County’s heavily damaged community, TreeFolks received a $50,000 Wells Fargo Environmental Solutions for Communities grant in June 2015. It used the money to expand its Bastrop County Community Reforestation Program to help affected landowners plant native pine saplings.
A five-year impact
TreeFolks is one of 312 projects around the country that was awarded part of the $15 million in Environmental Solutions for Communities grants between 2012 and 2016. Funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation and administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the five-year program invested in nonprofits focused on sustainable agriculture and forestry, land conservation and water resources, habitat and urban ecosystem restoration, green infrastructure, and environmental education in communities where Wells Fargo has a business presence.
Grantees used the funds to restore more than 94,000 acres of habitat, plant more than a million trees, and engage more than 900,000 volunteers in land and water conservation, environmental education, and water efficiency projects.
“The initial $15 million Wells Fargo strategic grant seeded a tremendous five-year program,” said Ashley Grosh of Wells Fargo Environmental Affairs. “NFWF leveraged that grant to engage other public and private investments for a total impact of over $85.7 million. Grants were made in communities where we work, do business, and live.”
As part of Wells Fargo’s commitment to donate $65 million in grants to environmental nonprofits by 2020 and based on the success of the Environmental Solutions grant program, Wells Fargo recently launched a four-year, $10 million Resilient Communities Program. The program — administered by NFWF — will focus on helping communities minimize the impacts of fire, floods, droughts, and sea-level rise through conservation and capacity building. The 2016 Corporate Social Responsibility report provides more information about how Wells Fargo works across business and environmental philanthropy programs to make cities more resilient in the face of climate change.
“Having grown up near Austin, I remember the devastation of the wildfires in Bastrop County,” Grosh said. “NFWF supports programs like TreeFolks’ work in Bastrop County, with a focus on lasting sustainability and resiliency.”
Restoring an ecosystem
Valescu was one of more than 400 volunteers who planted a portion of the 420,000 loblolly pine saplings to restore those lost in the wildfires. With the help of the volunteers, the Bastrop County Community Reforestation Program restored 772 acres of habitat and reduced more than 10 million pounds of carbon dioxide, according to TreeFolks.
Though it will take decades for the saplings to grow to their majestic size, visitors of Bastrop State Park can already see evidence of a once lost ecosystem springing back to life.
“The grant from Wells Fargo and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation translated to direct impacts on the ground,” Mears said. “As the forest continues to recover, measurable impacts on air and water quality, local temperatures, and wildlife populations will become evident. Equally significant will be the impact on the residents’ sense of hope that the Lost Pines will return to their former beauty.”