Dead trees ignite talks

Beetle kill leaves Kenai Peninsula vulnerable to fire

Posted: Monday, March 01, 2004

If its vegetable matter, it can ignite, and in that regard, fire has always threatened the Kenai Peninsula spruce forest and the human communities built in and around it.

With the destruction wrought by the spruce bark beetle infestation, which has killed an estimated 3.4 million acres of trees in Alaska over the past decade, that fire danger is all the more real, forestry experts said at a symposium held in Homer last week on the effects of the spruce bark beetle outbreak on the Kenai Peninsula and associated forest management practices in South-central Alaska.

"Of the 2 million acres (in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge), we view about 1.4 million acres plus as burnable at some point in time," said Robin West, manager of the refuge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Some 400,000 acres on the refuge, about 28 percent, have seen some impact of the infestation, he said.

"That's a fairly significant amount," he said.

The three-day symposium included presentations by experts in fire safety, forestry, entomology, ecology, land management and wood product development. While fire safety issues consumed the largest portion of the three-day event, talks also turned to the socioeconomic impacts of the beetle devastation and to the possibilities for commercial exploitation of the millions of acres of dead and dying spruce covering much of the peninsula.

Fire is "a way of life" on the Kenai Peninsula, and important to the refuge for maintaining natural diversity, West said.

"But we've been kind of schizophrenic about it over the years," he noted. "We light fires, we put fires out. Good fires, bad fires. Developing politically, socially, biologically and economically acceptable fire policies that you control has not been accomplished yet anywhere, in my mind. Yet it is an extremely important goal."

Of 1,879 fires started on the peninsula between 1980 and 2002, about 12 percent of those where in the refuge itself, West said. The Crooked Creek blaze that consumed 17,000 acres in 1996 was one that stood out for him, he added.

The Crooked Creek fire did not threaten populated areas. But considering the threat posed by the dead forest, West speculated that conditions might be different today had that fire consumed more acreage.

"We've been very successful at suppression," he said.

The future may see more of an emphasis on managing wildfires to benefit habitat and to create buffers around populated areas rather than attempting to extinguish them quickly, he said. But that idea comes with a caveat. Permitting large fires to rage over vast acreage, despite the possible benefits, "is just not socially acceptable," West said.

The millions of acres of fuel waiting for the right conditions of humidity, temperature and wind to permit a wildfire to spread, essentially puts every community on the peninsula at risk. There are ongoing efforts by the refuge to lessen the danger of wild land fire spreading from the refuge into populated areas. Recently, for instance, trees were thinned along Funny River Road in an effort to create a buffer zone.

"We average about a project a year," West said. "But to be honest with you, though, until the last three or four years, we really hadn't received much funding, and we are just now stepping up these projects and trying to do some larger ones."

Other factors affecting the fire risk West touched on included the rapidly growing numbers of visitors to the peninsula and the refuge about 2.5 million visitors come through the refuge annually, including about 500,000 that specifically target the refuge for recreation each year, he said.

That means "a lot more potential for ignition sources," he said.

Managing the federal lands used to be simpler, West said, consisting of game management, harvest strategies and fire control. Today, other issues must be considered, such as salmon allocation, oil and gas development, bear baiting, ATVs and snowmachines, subsistence and wolf control, to name a few, making the job much more complicated, he said.

"To be honest with you, our governmental organizations in the three or four decades since this transition has taken place haven't done a very good job accomplishing successes on complex and controversial issues," West said.

On Friday, discussions turned to the social and economic impacts of the spruce bark beetle infestation.

The outlook for commercial utilization of the trees is, at best, guarded.

For several years, logs and chips made from them have been shipped to Asia over the Homer dock. The chip operation recently ceased, which will have an impact on the local economy and on revenues for the city.

Eini Lowell, of the U.S. Forest Service, said there were various uses for the trees as lumber, veneer, pulp and paper, and as house logs. But those depend heavily on the quality of the wood, which was itself proportional to the time since the beetles had infected the trees. A visual classification system was developed that differentiated between trees recently attacked to those where bark was sloughing off and the wood itself was exhibiting weather checking (linear cracking).

Ken Kilborn, of the Alaska Wood Utilization Research and Development Center in Sitka, also said the prospects were mixed.

"The good news is products can be made" from Kenai Peninsula dying spruce. The bad news, he added, was that many products simply weren't economical to manufacture.

In response to a question, Kilborn said there are no easy answers about where profits might be made or where product research might lead in the future.

In the realm of social impacts, Courtney Flint, a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, has been conducting a study on the peninsula for the past couple of years attempting to measure the real and perceived impacts of the changing forest ecology on the population and on what actions that has led to.

The study included surveys in Seldovia, Homer, Anchor Point, Ninilchik, Cooper Landing and Moose Pass, areas that have been hit or currently are threatened by the beetle outbreak.

Among other things, Flint found that perceptions of risk and economic impact varied across the six communities and the variations often had to do with how recently the damage was done. For instance, Cooper Landing residents, who watched their trees die a decade or more ago, have largely moved on. In Homer and Seldovia, meanwhile, the damage or threat is ongoing and thus more immediate. Perceptions of fire risk, as well as a sense of economic and aesthetic loss, seem more tangible.

Flint said community actions taken in response to the infestation and its ramifications have assumed a variety of forms and changed over time. She noted a variety of impacts lumped into four categories biophysical, forest management, socioeconomic and risk assessment.

Residents often commented on changing wind patterns and changes in forest ecology and vegetation cover, among other biophysical impacts, she said. Log-ging, road building, flood and erosion and changes to fish and wildlife habitat were covered under forest management.

Flint noted the outbreak has altered the relationship between the public and forest management agencies. While efforts to lessen the fire danger mostly have been applauded, a general perception exists, she said, that forestry's response to the outbreak has, essentially, "been too little too late."

It was clear in interviews she did with residents that people place a lot of emphasis on the socioeconomic impacts of the infestation. Aesthetically and emotionally, residents have reacted strongly to the loss of the forest.

She noted a kind of identity crisis experienced by some.

"People feel that they are Alaskans and their community identity was built around the forest," she said.

But it is not seen as entirely negative. Logging over the past decade has provided some economic benefits, and that has affected perceptions in places like Anchor Point and Ninilchik, she said.

In some cases, industries have adapted, such as real estate. Where once brokers might have pitched land for its trees, now they promote "emerging views" as dead and dying stands are removed.

Effects on community cohesion have been mixed.

"Some say the outbreak has brought them together in agreement, others say it has torn them apart. But it certainly has given people something to talk about and work together on, which is really important from a community perspective," she said.

"Regardless, many people commented on the increase in forest awareness and knowledge."

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