Forestry experts say it's the most devastating infestation ever recorded and predict still more Kenai Peninsula spruce trees will suffer attack this summer when spring warmth again puts millions of bark beetles to flight.
Slowly, but inexorably, a blanket of gray death will follow in their wake. Additional hectares of healthy Kenai Peninsula forest will succumb. It is nature at its most raw, and humankind is powerless to stop it.
At best, all that can be done is to remove the dead trees to reduce the fire hazard and the threat to power lines and roads, or in some cases, plan for the harvest of still healthy trees standing in the outbreak's path.
That's what has been happening for the past three years with the help of millions in federal grants, the labor of the forest industry and volunteers, cooperative agreements between governments and agencies, and, lately, the high-tech tools of satellite imagery and software.
The latest move includes an ordinance introduced at last week's Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting that would spend $300,000 in interest money earned in the spruce bark beetle damage mitigation account held by the borough. The proposed appropriation would pay to clear hazardous dead spruce from the utility right of way along the Kenai River from Soldotna to Sterling under a cooperating agreement with Homer Electric Association.
Ordinance 2001-19-35, proposed by Mayor Dale Bagley, gets a public hearing March 12. Assembly President Tim Navarre said Friday he does not expect the ordinance to have any difficulty passing.
The borough and HEA already have one working cooperative agreement for $1 million worth of utility right-of-way clearing south of the Kenai River, and a second agreement that eventually will spend $200,000 for right-of-way clearing in the Funny River Road area and an area north of the Kenai River.
There have been three federal grants aimed at meeting the challenges of the infestation. The borough received $500,000 authorized in 1998 to launch the Spruce Bark Beetle Task Force. Another $2 million was appropriated in fiscal year 2000 on the basis of a report by the task force. The largest grant, $7.5 million, was obtained in fiscal year 2001. So far, the total grant funding has earned approximately $550,000, of which the current proposal would spend $300,000.
Michael Fastabend, a forester and program coordinator of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program, said roughly 16 percent of the total funds had been expended by the beginning of this year. Much more of it has been earmarked for specific projects.
These include removing hazardous trees from along road rights of way, removing trees from utility rights of way, reforestation projects (almost $2 million is dedicated to that end), as well as mapping projects useful in assessing hazards, he said.
One project involves analyzing photo images taken from satellites. Subtle coloration differences can tell scientists which trees have only just been infested, information that could aid forestry agencies in making decisions about whether to log while the trees still have value, Fastabend said.
The worst damage by far exists on the southern peninsula, where what Fastabend calls the "unprecedented outbreak" has wiped out almost all the seed-bearing mature trees, leaving the forest virtually without the ability to regenerate. Fastabend said residents around the Anchor Point area could expect many of their still healthy trees to be attacked this summer.
Under HEA's $1 million cooperative agreement, utility rights of way have been or are about to be cleared in areas starting near the Russian villages at the far end of East End Road and up the Sterling Highway toward the Kenai River, including the North Fork Road region, said Duane Parlow, manager of administrative services for HEA.
"At present time we are clearing in the Anchor Point area," he said. "We've already done work on Oilwell Road at Ninilchik. The funding should enable taking the dead and dying trees in the rights of way up to the Kenai River, including around Kalifornsky Beach Road."
Although appropriated, HEA has not yet received the $200,000 from the second cooperative agreement, Parlow said. That money will clear utility lanes along Funny River Road and on the far shore of the Kenai River over toward the Sterling Highway.
The proposed expenditure of the $300,000 in interest money would clear utility rights of way between the river and the highway out to Sterling, and also rights of way in North Kenai and Nikiski, Parlow said.
Besides the existing and proposed cooperative agreements with HEA, the borough also has an agreement with Chugach Electric Association, Fastabend said. Under that deal, utility rights of way are to be cleared between Hope and Crown Point just south of Moose Pass.
The borough also is working on an agreement with Seward Electric Association to clear rights of way from Crown Point to Mile 19 of the Seward Highway, he said.
Meanwhile continue. About $600,000 of the federal money already has been spent to reforest Native-owned land, and about $100,000 has been spent on private lands.
"Our road and utility easement programs will be wound up in about two years," Fastabend said. "The reforestation program is anticipated to go on for another four or five years."
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