Assembly OKs funds for beetle test program

Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2002

Satellite imagery and photos shot from high-flying aircraft soon could be deployed in the battle against the spruce bark beetle infestation that has devastated forests on the Kenai Peninsula.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly introduced an ordinance Tuesday night to appropriate $271,000 in federal money to begin monitoring a 60-square-mile forested test area between Kenai and Nikiski bordering both sides of the Kenai Spur Highway. The area is heavy in mature trees, the kind favored by the beetles when they migrate each spring.

A public hearing on the appropriation is scheduled for Feb. 5.

Satellite photos won't stop the tiny insects from infecting trees, but analysis of the thermal imagery could help foresters and entomologists detect newly infected trees -- so-called "stressed" trees -- long before their needles turn brown, according to Bob Bright, borough planning director.

"The beetles are active there and it will be a good test case to see if the program will be of benefit to us," Bright said.

The information may give state and federal forestry planners as well as private landowners a better handle on where the infestation is going and help them make decisions about whether to harvest the trees ahead of the bugs and at least salvage their commercial value, Bright said.

The funding comes through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Kenai test program was among eight projects in the state chosen by NASA and Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer's office.

The peninsula's share of that funding is the money to be appropriated under the ordinance introduced Tuesday.

The 60-square-mile area is a good candidate for a test zone because it contains trees in various stages of infestation, assembly member Bill Popp said.

"It's like a miniature Kenai Peninsula Borough," he said. The program, he added, could provide a way to "get ahead of that infestation, create a clear area, take out the infested trees, do whatever it is that (foresters) think will best mitigate the damage before it gets out of hand."

The high-tech monitoring comes too late to help the lower Kenai Peninsula, where the infestation first took hold. Forests there are bright brown or dead gray and nearly valueless in the wake of the beetles.

"(Scientists) believe about 45 percent of the peninsula has not suffered from this. This is not just a project that is only for the peninsula," Popp said. "It is being looked at as a way to take this identification process statewide, because this is an issue that is popping up in a lot of forests around the state."

Meanwhile, the borough's program authorizing emergency harvests of beetle-killed timber continues. Ten timber sales were conducted in the last quarter of last year and were located near Kasilof, Clam Gulch, Anchor Point and Nikolaevsk. Timber in those areas sold for an estimated $309,000, according to a memo from Bright. Reforestation of the logged areas will be done where necessary, he said.

Bright also said the Spruce Bark Beetle Office staff is preparing a resolution to amend the 2000 ordinance that created the harvest program to bolster efforts to identify areas of infected forest that have been rated as high or moderate wildfire hazards. The resolution is expected to reach the assembly sometime in the first quarter of this year.

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