Beetle battle over?

Posted: Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mayor Dave Carey announced this week that he is prepared to all but end the borough's participation in the decade-old Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program and its effort to rid strategic areas of dead spruce.

The program was launched in 1998 following action by the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee and Sen. Ted Stevens. The U.S. Forest Service established a multiparty task force and the Kenai Peninsula Borough was named lead agency for the Spruce Bark Beetle Task Force.

According to the borough's Web site, the borough implemented the integrated Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program in accordance with a task force report and congressional direction.

Eight action categories were established, including fire prevention and public safety, forest management, risk and hazard assessment, public education, public assistance, science and research, long-term planning, and continuity of efforts. Since 1998, the program has received or spent more than $15.5 million in federal aid.

The bulk of the money was used to remove dead spruce from strategic areas, and included such efforts as providing for community slash disposal, removing dead trees along utility corridors, harvesting fuels for sale and using regional fire crews to remove hazard trees in high-use public areas, campgrounds and from around public buildings. Other funds went to educational efforts.

However, no more federal funds are being requested, Carey said this week.

"I have decided to complete the majority of the borough's participation in this program by June 30, the end of the 2008-09 fiscal year," Carey said. "The FireWise educational program will be transferred to other borough employees, and spruce bark beetle removal will be done under other borough contracts and borough agreements."

Two employees will be cut by Jan. 16, he said, including a forestry and fire specialist and a right-of-way mapping coordinator.

"By July 1, it is anticipated that there will be four additional positions eliminated," Carey announced.

In an interview Monday, Carey said the program had about $1 million of federal money left, plus about $500,000 in interest accumulated since federal funding began. That is money Carey believes can be spent on beetle-related projects more efficiently by other borough agencies, such as the roads department.

He said Monday that he's had trouble even reaching beetle program officials.

"I've been there (to the program office in Soldotna) two or three times since becoming mayor, and there's no one there," he said.

He noted that borough Planner Max Best had talked with someone from the office and gotten an e-mail to the effect that two had been out sick, two had been doing inspections and two had actually been at the office when Carey came by, but failed to meet up with the mayor.

Carey said he didn't have any reason to doubt that, but noted the point was that remaining federal funds, which must be used on beetle-related projects, could be used more efficiently elsewhere in the borough's bureaucracy.

"We have a number of road improvement projects that need spruce bark beetle trees to be removed," he said. "We will redeploy some of the money to other contracts."

While the FireWise program within the Spruce Bark Beetle Program has a valid educational role, Carey said, emergency services also was engaged in such educational efforts and could adopt the FireWise program.

"They will include in their educational programs the FireWise program material," he said.

The borough is looking at all the federal money -- interest included -- and Carey said he was discussing relevant matters with his legal and finance departments.

Program Coordinator Michael Fastabend confirmed that spruce bark program officials were informed of the mayor's decision last week. He said there was still much to be done in terms of beetle mitigation, but that the program would pass on all the information gathered on issues like fire preparedness.

He said members of the staff were prepared to assist in any way they could in future mitigation efforts.

At this point, however, a plan for how a transfer of responsibilities between borough agencies would happen has yet to be fleshed out, he said.

Assembly President Milli Martin said Monday she has "some concerns" about the mayor's proposal, but until she has spoken with him in more depth and has a clearer understanding of his idea she would reserve comment.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net.



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