Legislation would change timber practices in Southcentral Alaska

Posted: Thursday, March 30, 2006

Timber harvesting rules defining buffers meant to protect habitat around Kenai Peninsula rivers and streams would be stiffened under bills now before the Alaska Legislature.

But while some no-cut buffer zones would be widened and others reduced, the primary change would be to require those strict no-cut buffers on private, as well as public land. Nevertheless, the proposed changes are not expected to significantly alter current commercial forestry practices on the Kenai Peninsula, according to harvesters.

The buffer zone amendments are proposed in House Bill 420 and its companion Senate Bill 262, currently in the House Rules Committee and Senate Re-sources Committee respectively.

No-cut buffers100 feet wide already are required on public lands. The proposed changes generally would widen those buffers around large rivers to 150 feet, keep the 100-foot buffer about smaller rivers, and reduce them to 50 feet along small streams less than three feet wide.

Currently, private lands within 100 feet of rivers and streams have been regulated as special management areas, where tree cutting is permitted if operations are designed to protect habitat and water quality. Here there are no no-cut zones.

That would change under the proposed revisions. If approved, the same no-cut terms applied to public lands would also apply on private property.

Passage of one of the bills would complete a process begun in 1990 to adopt statewide riparian protection standards (stream buffers) for commercial forest operations under the Forest Resources and Practices Act. Revised standards already have been adopted in two of the state’s three FRPA regions: Region I, which covers much of southern coastal Alaska, including the east side of the Kenai Peninsula, and Region III, which includes Interior Alaska.

Only Region II, which stretches across much of Southcentral Alaska south of Denali, including western Kenai Peninsula from Homer north to Turnagain Arm and the west side of Cook Inlet, has yet to be revised. That is the purpose behind the two bills.

“The nutshell version is that around large, dynamic rivers, both glacial and nonglacial, we’re proposing a wider basic buffer (no-cut zone) of 150 feet. That would apply both on public and private land,” said Marty Freeman, with the State Division of Forestry.

Gone would be the special management areas on private land under which harvesting currently can occur near to rivers and streams.

The general purpose behind all the buffers is to protect fish habitat. The high value of fish coupled with the relatively low value of timber in Region II has led to the proposed restrictions.

In many cases, the wider buffers are meant to prevent too much erosion and sedimentation. Along some rivers, however, the aim is to protect natural erosive forces necessary to ensure enough dead wood reaches the rivers to create sloughs and side channels that provide fish with resting and spawning habitat, she said.

“The way to get big logs into big rivers is to have the banks erode,” she said. “They need a lot of wood, so you need a wider buffer.”

The Alaska Forest Resources and Practices Act is meant to provide the commercial timer industry with a “one-stop shopping” system for complying with the federal Clean Water Act and Coastal Zone Management Act. Forest operations that are consistent with the FRPA are deemed consistent with those acts.

According to the division, final approval of the FRPA as the state’s forestry management measure for the Coastal Zone Reauthorization Act depends on adoption of buffer standards on private land in Region II. The two bills now before lawmakers are meant to accomplish that.

According to Freeman, the bills are the culmination of more than two years of work by scientists, agencies, municipalities (Matanuska-Susitna and Kenai Peninsula boroughs included), Native corporations, representatives of the timber industry and other stakeholders, including the University of Alaska and Mental Health Trusts.

“It got a quite broad review,” Freeman said.

According to a summary of public comment taken during review of the proposed amendments, landowners and timber operators indicated that impacts from the proposed standards would be limited due to Region II’s topography, existing vegetation patterns, and relatively low timber values.

According to the minutes, Dean Kvasnikoff, of Ninilchik Native Association Inc., said the proposals wouldn’t make a big difference on the peninsula. Corporation logging practices already included staying well back from streams.

Kvasnikoff noted that the time frame for reforestation under FRPA was a bigger issue. The division plans to initiate a review of Region II and III reforestation standards this fall.

Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inlet Keeper, said the revisions sounded like they were taking a good direction.

“As climate change takes hold in Alaska and the temperatures in our salmon streams continues to increase, it is important to control the stresses and impacts that we can.

“We may not be able to control the temperature, but we can control the effects of development along our fish streams,” he said.

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