ANCHORAGE (AP) -- State and federal foresters are trying to decide if private landowners on the Kenai Peninsula and around Anchorage should be allowed to use public money to replace beetle-killed spruce trees with nonnative trees.
An additional $500,000 has become available for a state reforestation program. Foresters are weighing whether the money can be used to purchasse lodgepole pine and Siberian larch trees.
Lodgepole pine and Siberian larch are popular with landowners because they grow quickly, are suited to the cold and provide valuable timber, said Al Peterson, a state forester based on the Peninsula. They mature two to three times faster than spruce trees and are not susceptible to the spruce bark beetle, though they can fall prey to other pests.
''People are interested in having a fast-growing tree that will help block the wind,'' Peterson said.
While some foresters argue that planting trees not native to the area could modify the makeup of forests and hurt wildlife by changing habitat, others say the amount of land that would be affected -- about 3,000 acres -- is relatively small.
Dave Ryland, a habitat biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said he worries that the nonnative trees could change soil moisture, the amount of sunlight reaching the forest floor and alter wildlife habitat, particularly for songbirds.
''You may not see a negative effect for 20 years. But we don't know how these trees will behave over time,'' Ryland said. ''It's prudent not to do it.''
State foresters said they are mulling over the issue and will decide sometime before planting begins in earnest next year. Though a few thousand acres may not sound like a lot the policy is still worth examining, said Marty Freeman, a forest resources program manager with the Division of Forestry.
''It's not like these trees don't exist in Kenai and Anchorage,'' Freeman said. ''But we'd be increasing the scale that they would exist.''
Another unknown is how widely the trees would spread.
Lodgepole pines and Siberian larches are both considered ''pioneer'' species, meaning they can invade new habitats. Lodgepole pines did not disperse much after being introduced in Sweden but have taken over parts of New Zealand, Freeman said.
''Their experience is enough to alert us to be smart about what we do,'' she said.
Ed Holsten, an entomologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said he is not concerned about letting people plant some nonnative trees. Though the pines could spread, he said, they are intolerant of shade and would eventually be overcome by spruce. ''They would phase out as soon as the spruce come back,'' he said.
The reforestation program, run by the Division of Forestry, helps landowners replant private parcels ranging from 7 acres to 5,000 acres. The state consults with landowners about which trees to plant and pays 65 percent of the cost. The landowner pays the rest.
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