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Borough asks feds for help with beetle kill

Mitch Michaud

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and the Kenai Peninsula Borough have submitted a funding request to address spruce bark beetle kill on the peninsula — the latest effort to curb the ongoing beetle kill crisis that’s destroyed spruce forests across Southcentral. 

"I think we’re a little behind the eight ball because we don't realize until we start peeling back bark a tree has beetles in it, until later on, when we see the red, the changing of the needles," said Brenda Ahlberg, the community and fiscal projects manager for the borough. "By that time, that tree has gone past any viable resource.”

Spruce bark beetles have been ravaging Kenai Peninsula trees for several years. You can see the outbreak everywhere — from the clumps of dead, purplish spruce trees lining the highway to the empty patches of land where they once stood.

Spruce bark beetles eat away at trees making them weaker and more prone to falling. That brush in turn creates a fire hazard.

And the beetles come and go in cycles, particularly in times of drought and fire. The last beetle kill outbreak in Southcentral was in the 1990s. 

Ahlberg said the borough hopes to work $35 million into a Congressional bill or budget for fiscal year 2022 to preempt further damage and address existing harm. The appropriation would allow the borough to enter into a grant agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.

"Because they already have a program in place that would support the mitigation projects as a result of the spruce bark beetle," she said.

Over the next five years, that $35 million would go toward protecting private and public lands from infestation and protect Alaskans against resulting fires, according to the appropriation request.

The request also said the borough wants to look at exporting the wood that’s leftover from beetle kill projects.

“We certainly want to work with private industry on what those primary and secondary products could potentially be once the woods have been harvested," Ahlberg said.

The borough’s also asking the feds to waive the federal requirement for a grant match, “due to the emergency and extraordinary situation," according to the request.

Murkowski submitted the request to the Department of the Interior, since congressional appropriations requests have to go through members of the state’s D.C. delegation. Ahlberg said she confirmed with the senator’s office last week they had submitted it.

Meanwhile, the borough is asking its representatives in Juneau and peninsula cities to send the feds letters of support for the project. Ahlberg said the borough will work on incorporating cities into the projects as subrecipients to the grant so they can address the program in their own areas

Separately, the city of Soldotna is also waiting on a federal grant to address beetle kill, from FEMA.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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