Latest beetle infestation deadliest ever

Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Devastation in the forest of the southern Kenai Peninsula due to the spruce bark beetle has been so complete that most of the seed-bearing mature trees are dead, which will make it hard for the forest to regenerate, said a scientist with the Kenai Peninsula Borough Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program.

Indeed, this spring's expected flight of beetles will largely have nowhere to go in regions east of Homer. North of the city, nearer Anchor Point, however, new trees will be attacked, said Michael Fastabend, a forester with the mitigation program, who for the past 15 years has been working in a field known as disturbance ecology.

"On most parts of the southern peninsula, the (beetle) population is in collapse and has been for the last two or three years," Fastabend said. "But you can expect to see infestation along the Sterling Highway and the Old Sterling Highway."

An active beetle population also exists along the Kenai River from Sterling to the coast and from Kenai to Nikiski, he said.

In a so-called "normal" bark beetle outbreak, it is typical for more than half the mature trees to survive unscathed, allowing the forest to regenerate as seedlings thrive under the protective cover of a healthy canopy.

"But in this outbreak, the mature seed-bearing trees (on the southern peninsula) have been killed," and the canopy of needles is falling to the ground, Fastabend said. The current infestation is the largest and most intense ever recorded; program personnel refer to it as an "unprecedented outbreak," he said.

Without the protective cover of the canopy, grasses sprout rapidly in the sunlit ground. Grasses compete for water and produce thick root systems that chill the soil, preventing seedlings from taking hold, Fastabend said.

An outbreak in the 1890s killed a significant portion of the peninsula forest, but nothing rivaling the present damage. Given time, forests slowly reclaim grassy areas as their leading edges mature and areas partially shielded by the overhanging canopy are reseeded successfully. It took about 80 years for the peninsula forest to recover from the 1890s outbreak, Fastabend said.

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