Spruce bark beetles expected again this spring

Posted: Thursday, February 28, 2002

KENAI (AP) -- The spruce bark beetle has been so successful in devastating the southern Kenai Peninsula forest it will be hard for the forest to regenerate, a scientist said.

Michael Fastabend, a forester with the Kenai Peninsula Borough Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program, said most of the forest's seed-bearing mature trees are dead.

In fact, the devastation is so widespread, that when the beetles arrive again this spring, they will have to go north of Homer to find new trees to attack, Fastabend said.

''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.

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. The current infestation is the largest and most intense ever recorded, Fastabend said.

It took about 80 years for the peninsula forest to recover from the 1890s outbreak.

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