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Reforestation plan takes root: Stimulus funds boost project reduce Peninsula's wild fire risk

Posted: Wednesday, January 06, 2010

In 30 years, forests may begin to spread on small-to-medium sized parcels of land around the Kenai Peninsula that are currently covered in native blue joint grass. Hopefully that means those parcels -- and the surrounding land -- will be less likely to catch fire.

The budding forests will be the legacy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the work of the Kenai Peninsula Borough's Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation program -- with some help from the U.S. Forest Service. But right now, the would-be forests are just decade-old seeds stored at Alaska Plant Material Center in Palmer. And the 125 parcels of land are grassy areas that no longer house trees, mostly due to the spruce bark beetle or previous fires.

The project was developed out of community wildfire protection plans, all 15 of which prioritized grassy fuels as a wildfire risk that Peninsula communities wanted assistance mitigating, said Michael Fastabend from the borough's spruce bark beetle mitigation program.

The grass as a fire hazard isn't going away anytime soon because it takes at least 30 to 40 years for trees to emerge in the areas the project targets, Fastabend said, and another 30 to 40 years for those trees to develop into a forest.

"It is a long-term wild fire risk problem," he said. In essence, the project will speed up the forest's processes by about 30 years and reduce that risk.

In the next few weeks, Lutz spruce (a hybrid resulting from a cross of White and Sitka spruce trees) seeds will be headed to a nursery where they'll be nurtured along for five to six months, then returned to the Kenai Peninsula as 500,000 young trees in mid-July. The seeds were collected on the Peninsula in 1998 but they're being used for a reforestation effort that just started this past summer. The effort is part of a $1.7-million bundle of fire mitigation projects on the Peninsula funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, said Gary Lehnhausen, from the Forest Service.

The 125 parcels of land total about 1,900 acres. Fastabend said 2,300 acres were eligible for reforestation, but some of land owners opted out of the program and others didn't respond to the letter asking if they were interested.

The parcels of land being targeted were selected because they have the grass, which Wade Wahrenbrock, also from the borough's program, described as a "flashy fuel" that catches fire easily. And they're on private land and between seven and 100 acres in size. Wahrenbrock said the size range was chosen because it is large enough for a Forest Service designation as a forest, but small enough that the parcels are typically closer to residential communities, making the land more of a fire risk. The land is privately owned, but Wahrenbrock said the public benefits.

"There's a community benefit to reducing the risk," he said.

But first, the program has to choose a nursery to nurture the seeds. Bidding closed yesterday, and Fastabend said they hope to choose one by next week. At the nursery, the seedlings will be nourished with fertilizer and sunlight until they're ready to be planted, Wahrenbrock said.

Meanwhile, the borough has two more portions of the project to request bids on: mulching the ground before the trees go in, and planting the trees.

Fastabend said the mulching contractor will probably use a small machine to turn small sections of grass into plantable patches. That will happen once the ground hardens after break-up. Then the trees will arrive, and the last step is pretty simple.

"The tree planters will come in and plant the trees," he said.

Wahrenbrock said that because the trees will return to Kenai well-fed, they'll grow faster than a normally-born tree for about a year, helping them to take root in the area and hopefully overshadow the grass.

The new forests won't be the project's only legacy. This summer, the office did vegetative mapping to figure out where patches of land might be covered in grass and collected new seeds to replenish the community's stock at the plant material center. And the borough will also be reforesting borough land -- more than 20,000 acres.

Lehnhausen said that some of the other borough projects bundled with the reforestation one also developed out of the community wildfire protection plans. Other parts of the bundle include a fuel reduction project to remove hazardous trees along road corridors, and another to remove fuels from state park lands.

All the projects were selected in a time-crunch, he said. Congress asked the Forest Service to help identify projects in each state, and Lehnhausen's office has been responsible for helping oversee the funds once they reached each community. The first step was finding eligible projects.

"These projects had to be identified and applications prepared in just about two weeks," Lehnhausen said.

They were selected mostly because they met the stimulus fund criteria of being ready to start and providing local jobs, but also because they were important to the communities, he said.

"All the projects are good worthy projects," he said.

But without the stimulus funding, it would have been more difficult to make them happen.

"Our normal funding sources have been going down in the last few years," he said. "These funds were a big blessing to us."

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@peninsulaclarion.com.



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