The Lost Pines of Texas refer to a disjunct population of Pinus taeda L. located in Central Texas near Bastrop at the westernmost edge of the species' natural range. The narrow belt of loblolly pines stretches some thirteen miles across and is thought to be an ancient resident of Central Texas, perhaps part of a larger pine forest that shrank in size during or after the Pleistocene or so-called Ice Age. This is consistent with the findings that Pinus taeda from the Lost Pines and from the East Texas Piney Woods are closely related and there is very slight genetic divergence hence no support for the Lost Pines population as a subspecies of P. taeda.
This disjunct pine forest was first described by early Spanish explorer Domingo Terán de los Ríos in his expedition along the Colorado River in 1691 and later by Stephen F. Austin and other settlers drawn to the area by the generous land grants awarded by the Mexican government. The Bastrop Steam Mill Company began lumbering in the Lost Pines in 1838. Higgins Mill, operated by Jacob Higgins and Abner Cook followed suit in 1840. By 1870 the population census for Bastrop County reached 11,000 people, and this expanding settlement increased demands for timber. Extensive logging of the Lost Pines occurred around 1880, but the forested land area did not shrink. The Lost Pines forest occupied 36,400 hectares in 1880 and of this, 34,400 hectares remained in 1952.
A portion of the Lost Pines forests is enclosed by Bastrop State Park and Buescher State Park, providing protection from logging and fire. The area that is now Bastrop State Park was part of the original 1832 land grant to Stephen F. Austin's first colony. Between 1933 and 1937, the land was acquired from private landowners for Bastrop and Buescher State Parks, and then the parks were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Contrary to popular belief, the distribution of the Lost Pines forest in the state parks is not limited by a specific soil type or association although the pines tend to be over-represented on sandy light topsoil underlain by clayey heavy subsoil and on other highly water-permeable soils. Water levels in and around the Lost Pines population range from shallow to deep as part of the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer.
Today, with the absence of logging in these two state parks, the P. taeda population size is increasing. Pinus taeda land coverage on the approximately 2610 hectares within the two state parks has increased since 1949 from 25.5% coverage to 37.2% in 1995. Other pines have been planted along the highways and outside Bastrop and Buescher State Parks, adding to the forested land cover, but it is not known if these seedlings came from the original Lost Pines seed source. The original Lost Pines forest sampled within the Bastrop State Park has the same levels of genetic diversity found in the larger, more continuous East Texas Piney Woods and in the rest of the extensive P. taeda forests west of the Mississippi River Valley. Thus the original Lost Pines population is not genetically depauperate despite its geographic separation from the larger, more continuous P. taeda forest. The Texas Forest Service maintains ex situ archives of early twentieth century accessions from the original Lost Pines forest.
Good stewardship of the Lost Pines forest rests on knowledge about the life history of the species. Pinus taeda is a long-lived tree that can live as long as 300 to 400 years. Onset of its reproduction starts between ages ten and fifteen years and annual seed production tends to be heavy after twenty years. Outcrossing by wind pollination prevails although male and female strobili do occur on the same tree (note that conifers do not have flowers). Few seeds or seedlings survive beyond the first year. The surviving seedlings are shade intolerant, thriving in areas disturbed by fire or agricultural clearing. Fire, logging and agricultural clearing favor the dynamic spread of the original Lost Pines forest in Central Texas.