More than a million acres of spruce forest on the Kenai Peninsula has suffered and died from bark beetle infestation, and much of it is considered to be at moderate to high risk for wildfire.
That includes more than 20,000 acres of borough-owned or managed land, much of it near populated areas.
Since 2000, the borough has participated with the federally funded Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program to clear borough land of dead trees. To date, according to the program’s manager, Roberta Wilfong, about 3,700 acres of borough land have been cleared of dead spruce, part of roughly 152,000 acres of public, private and Native land across the peninsula that has received at least some level of mitigation effort, including timber harvesting.
The assembly first authorized the harvest of beetle-killed trees on borough property identified as fire hazards in 2000. In 2003, the assembly extended the deadline for participation through June 30, 2006.
A measure introduced at the June 6 meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly would extend the emergency harvest program again, this time to July 1.
Since enactment of the 2003 extension, the beetle program has received an additional $3.18 million in federal funding and recently received notice that it is in line for just over $2 million more. Thus, funding for more borough harvesting is available.
The ordinance asserts the borough’s interest in continuing to harvest dead trees on borough-owned acreage over the next three years. But further large-scale harvesting would depend on the emergence of a new market for the wood, similar perhaps to one that saw millions of board- feet of beetle-killed spruce logs and chips exported to pulp factories in Asia through the port of Homer.
At this time there is no such market on the horizon and wide-area harvesting on borough land is unlikely. But the proposed ordinance would clear the way for expediting harvest contracts should one develop by permitting the borough to “avoid the regular gymnastics” typically necessary to enter into contracts, said Max Best, the borough’s planning director.
It also would make it easier to enter into small-scale contracts to quickly harvest from the urban-wildland interface those clearly hazardous trees that pose the greatest threat to people and property, such as around structures and along escape routes, Best said.
Other than some research projects looking into possible uses for the beetle kill, Wilfong said she knew of no large-scale market in the offing at this time.
Nevertheless, elements of the spruce-clearing program have benefited and are benefiting from local loggers who might have packed up to head for greener pastures but haven’t as yet.
“We are still fortunate to have the expertise here to remove it,” she said.
According to the beetle program’s 2005 status report, a total of 152,600 acres of public, private and Native land have received fuel mitigation treatment including timber harvest, rights-of-way and defensible space clearing. That work, plus wildfires that have been allowed to burn, have reduced the beetle-killed spruce range to about 1 million acres, the bulk of it on in the central and lower Kenai Peninsula area.
Of all the money thus far received by the program (roughly $13.4 million in appropriations and grants), about 65 percent has been used on clearing operations. The rest has paid for reforestation, technical assistance, hazard and vegetation mapping, the retention of fire personnel, and emergency preparation and public education.
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