Thanks to the infamous spruce bark beetle, the Kenai Peninsula led Alaska's timber industry during the 1990s.
Borough reports indicate logging sales in 1991 grossed $2,240,133. In 1998, that figure jumped to $26,055,447.
"Spruce bark beetle conditions have impacted the rate of harvest as entrepreneurs attempt to harvest timber while it retains marketability," according to the borough's planning department in its 1998 Situations and Prospects.
Compare that to the gloomy statement on the statewide timber industry painted by the Alaska Department of Labor report on economic trends: "Timber -- an economic casualty of the 1990's."
Spruce bark beetles are common to spruce forests, but certain conditions on the peninsula during the past decade have opened a door that experts have been unable to close.
"As compared to historical impact, this particular infestation is much more extensive," said Wade Wahrenbrock, Forest Practices Act compliance officer for Alaska's Department of Natural Resources, Division of Forestry. "There are a lot of timber stands where we're seeing 95 percent of the trees killed."
Findings of the Spruce Bark Beetle Task Force concur. Created in 1998, the task force issued a report to Congress that said fire suppression, warmer temperatures and stress on peninsula forests caused by disease and lack of moisture are to blame.
The task force also said that by the mid 90s more than 400,000 acres had been affected, spurring the peninsula timber industry to make the most of a quickly diminishing economic resource.
Wahrenbrock recently updated that number to a million acres.
The task force report put that into perspective. The Kenai Peninsula Borough is comprised of approximately 9.9 million acres, 2.2 million of which are forested. Of that, 650,000 acres have potential for commercial harvest, with 375,000 currently available for harvesting. More than a third of the potential forested area is in national parks, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges.
Linking beetle-killed trees to the peninsula's timber industry is the fact that trees are sold by weight.
"One year after a spruce bark beetle attacks a tree, there will be a weight loss of approximately 12 to 14 percent," said Dean Kvasnikoff, owner of Alaska Native Resource Consultants Inc. of Ninilchik.
"It was originally thought that once affected by spruce bark beetles, trees on the peninsula had a shelf life of eight to 10 years, which gave plenty of time to harvest the trees," said Kvasnikoff. "However, practical experience has proven there really is only a four- to five-year shelf life."
Troy Smith, owner of Log Smith's of Alaska Inc. of Soldotna, uses local logs to custom-build homes. Smith said location also has played a role in length of time trees remain usable for his purposes.
"In Cooper Landing, we found trees dead three to five years that were still usable," said Smith. "However, trees from the southern end of the peninsula were relatively unusable after six months."
Paul Bunyard, owner of Arctic Moon Lumber in Homer, said his experience was that a loss of approximately 30 percent occurred after four years.
"That's not a concrete percentage loss," said Bunyard. "The best chance you have to harvest (timber) is to get it as quick as you can. Stuff that's five to seven years old isn't worth harvesting."
Such uncertain numbers have pushed landowners to make the most of this resource while time permits. Uses include everything from exporting chips to custom-made furniture.
Owning the largest parcels of affected forests are the federal government, the state of Alaska, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and Native corporations.
Bill Shuster, resource staff officer for the Chugach National Forest said the United States owns more than a million acres on the peninsula.
"The logging program they have right now is aimed at meeting local subsistence needs of firewood, house logs and personal use," Shuster said.
"It's aimed at removing the spruce bark beetle-killed trees and reducing the fire danger around the community."
As a result of the task force's recommendations, Congress returned $360,000 to the borough with three requests: use $225,000 to create a land vegetation map for the peninsula; use $45,000 to develop a pilot project for Homer East End Road that addresses wildfire risks in that heavily populated area; hire a spruce bark beetle coordinator.
Mike Fastabend, a former task force member, has been hired to fill that position. According to Fastabend, the borough also received a $2 million lump sum payment from Congress to reduce the tree hazard around peninsula communities.
Fastabend and his staff of two, mapping project director Marvin Rude and Andy De Volder, fire ecologist and geophysical information service technician, are using satellite imagery to help fulfill their assignment.
"What we're ultimately hoping to do long term is develop a plan that will build a much more fire-resistant vegetation for us to live in," said Fastabend.
Greg Encelewski, president of Ninilchik Native Association Inc., said his organization has harvested approximately 30,000 acres and has roughly 5,000 acres remaining to be harvested.
"We're toward the end of our timber-harvesting program," said Encelewski. "We have about two years left."
Kevin Gates, owner of Gates Construction, has successfully found markets for timber from Native association lands and currently supplies round pulp logs to Canadian and Washington pulp mills.
Gates also has started Alaska Spruce Products.
"We're the only sawmill in Alaska that can produce kiln-dried, planed, graded lumber," said Gates. His clients include Home Depot, Spenard Builders Supply and Arctic Builders, among others.
According to Gates, Alaska Spruce Products and Gates Construction gross a combined $20 million, 90 percent of which goes back into the peninsula economy. He predicts a five- to seven-year future for his companies, based on the amount of available resource.
Gates also recently bid on and acquired chipping facilities formerly owned by Circle DE Pacific Corp. He expects that bringing the facility back to past levels of production will mean employment for as many as 60 people and add an additional $15 million in revenue.
Gary McKellar, owner of Central Peninsula Lumber in Ninilchik, has been in business for seven years. He thanks the spruce bark beetle for his increase in business.
"We started with one mill," McKellar said. "Now we have three mills going.
"Because of beetle kill, we're getting a lot of blue stain in the wood. It's a really nice color and contractors love it."
Bunyard said Arctic Moon Lumber is preparing to refocus its business.
"I'm shifting the emphasis to rotten tree removal and property cleanup," said Bunyard. "(The trees) are either going to burn or fall down. Either way, it isn't a very good option."
John Hall, a forestry and natural resource consultant with Tiaga Resources in Girdwood and a member of the Society of American Foresters and the Association of Consulting Foresters, said all the changes brought by spruce bark beetles haven't been negative.
"It resulted in roads being put in, revenue coming in, and the green coming back," said Hall.
The current situation also can be credited with bringing a wide range of concerns to the decision-making table.
Mike Beal, CEO for Seldovia Native Association, finds his organization in just such a position.
"We were just praying that (the beetle) was going to stop," said Beal. "But we're pretty much reconciled to the fact that it's headed this way."
That realization resulted in Seldovia Native Association's invitation to the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, Cook Inlet Keeper, a homeowners association led by Bob Dickenson and other organizations to help them with the decisions they face.
"Seldovia Native Association wants to go into the tourism business," said Beal.
"And that doesn't go together with logging. We wish the forests would stay nice and pristine and we wouldn't have to be in the logging business. Every time we cut a tree, it hurts our tourism potential, But what do you do?
"If we're doing something wrong, we want somebody to tell us about it."
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