Borough standing up timber sales to harvest dying spruce forests
As the spruce bark beetle continues to chew through forests in Southcentral Alaska, now affecting an estimated 1.6 million acres, the clock is ticking to salvage any marketable value out of that wood.
On the Kenai Peninsula, at least 195,000 acres have been infected, and that number is still growing. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Land Management Division is crafting a plan to address that destruction on 21,000 acres between Kenai and Cooper Landing in a way that is — best case — economically beneficial. But at a minimum, at least protects against wildfires and helps transition to a healthier, beetle-resistant biome.
Land management agent Dakota Truitt gave a public presentation Tuesday in Soldotna.
“Our primary objectives are to utilize the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s forest resources that are rapidly deteriorating," Truitt said. "We want to reduce the economic and ecological costs to borough residents, improve the quality of the land, be a part of the sustainable industry development and reforest borough lands.”
The lands division is working on an ordinance for Planning Commission and Assembly consideration that would authorize timber sales and allow active forest management.
Truitt estimates the targeted area could yield a half to a cord of wood for lumber purposes and six to 20 cords of fuel wood per acre. There simply isn’t a big timber industry for lumber in Southcentral Alaska. Truitt said the value that does exist for spruce saw logs has dropped from $31 a cord to around $5 a cord. And the more a tree degrades, the less valuable it becomes for lumber. At best, Truitt said the borough could generate an estimated $330,000 to $660,000 in timber sales for lumber.
There’s a bigger market for fuel wood, and more-deteriorated spruce trees still have value as fuel. That could generate anywhere from $2.7 million to $9.2 million. Those are very rough estimates and Truitt thinks the lower end is more likely.
On the other side of the coin, if the borough can’t generate revenue through timber sales, the cost of treating the targeted area using the local workforce is looking expensive. Treatment would involve removing dead, dying and susceptible spruce. No clear-cutting allowed, and operators would have to adhere to environmental protections, such as staying away from anadromous streams and cutting in the winter, to not damage wetlands. Truitt said quotes have ranged from $450 to $2,000 an acre.
SBB timber 2 00:13 “And if you scale that up to 21,000 acres, that’s between $9 million and $42 million. That’s money that the borough doesn’t have. So, the longer we wait to take action, the more acreage and risk will perpetually compound.”
Dead, standing spruce stands are also susceptible to wildfires. The 2019 Swan Lake Fire was the second-most-expensive fire response in U.S. history, at $46 million.
There are potential grants and state and federal funding to help with the costs of treatment and reforestation. But the borough needs to have a plan in place if that money becomes available.
“We’re trying to establish a management framework so that when this infrastructure funding or funding from the state comes through, that is so focused on fuel management, we have a net to catch some of it and we’re prepared to do that work,” Truitt said.
If the ordinance is approved, there would still be a lot of on-the-ground details to work out, which is concerning to some forest neighbors. Theo Lexmond and his wife live next to borough forested land in Cooper Landing. There’s an old U.S. Forest Service road in the neighborhood. When that was open to vehicles, Lexmond said there were people camping in the woods, shooting off guns, leaving trash and not extinguishing campfires. He’s concerned about another road in the neighborhood.
“There’s a lot of things that go on with illicit camping around our area. And they’re all things that you can’t do in a campground that you pay for. And when these things are happening behind your home, you get pretty darned concerned about it,” Lexmond said.
But there could be value to maintaining access roads. Trevor Kauffman is a forester and previous borough land management agent. He’s worked in wildfire response and now is a commercial operator and said access roads are important for wildfire fighting and future forest management.
“I mean, I, certainly, as a borough citizen, wouldn’t want to see a bunch of logging roads put in to borough lands out here on the western Kenai and then all be taken back out at great cost, and then we can’t manage those lands or access them anymore,” Kauffman said.
Truitt said decisions would be made on a site-specific basis before any operation begins and would involve affected communities along the way.
“Especially in areas like Cooper Landing, where borough land encompasses the entire town, those conversations should be had at the community level," Truitt said. "So, yes, considerations for logging infrastructure, there’s going to be decision framework around that. It won’t just be an 'enter and then walk away’ scenario.”
Truitt encourages public participation in the planning process. The lands division hopes to submit the ordinance to the Planning Commission in April and the assembly in June. If the ordinance is approved, they hope to create their first timber sale offering within six months and issue the first contract by next spring.
You can check out the borough’s website with information about the spruce bark beetle mitigation plan at kpb.us/forestmanagement.