A spruce bark beetle is seen on the underside of a piece of bark taken from logs stacked near Central Peninsula Landfill on Thursday, July 1, 2021, near Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

A spruce bark beetle is seen on the underside of a piece of bark taken from logs stacked near Central Peninsula Landfill on Thursday, July 1, 2021, near Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Borough gets $1.5 million to fell beetle-killed trees along roads

The assembly will decide next Tuesday whether or not to accept that money

The federal government plans to give the Kenai Peninsula Borough $1.5 million to take down trees killed by spruce bark beetles along borough roads.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly will decide next Tuesday whether or not to accept that money, which was approved by Congress as part of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget for the current fiscal year. Assembly members gave initial approval to the ordinance accepting that money during their Aug. 1 meeting and will hold a public hearing and final vote on Aug. 15.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Peter Micciche wrote in an April 17 letter submitting the project for consideration for federal funds that a need for clear rights of way is identified as a priority in the borough’s 2022 Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Spruce trees killed by spruce bark beetles are especially susceptible to wildfires and are prone to falling over.

“This fuels reduction project ensures safe ingress/egress for the public and first responders, utilizes ROWs as fuel breaks during wildfire operations, and lessens utility outages or fire starts caused by downed trees during wind events,” Micciche wrote.

Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Director Robert Ruffner wrote in the grant application that the money, if awarded, would be used to employ private contractors to remove dead trees in borough rights of way. The borough’s planning department, Ruffner wrote, would work with borough service areas as part of the mitigation efforts.

The borough envisions using the $1.5 million over the course of three years and plans to measure the success of the project by logging the linear distance of roads treated, as well as number of trees removed. Per the application, the borough’s target is to remove 15,000 trees from priority areas.

The legislation being considered by assembly members, if approved, would be effective retroactively to the beginning of the current fiscal year, July 1.

The funds will build on another federal grant that the borough received earlier this year. The borough assembly in June accepted more than $70,000 from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, to be used for treatment of beetle-killed trees located on borough land.

Across Southcentral Alaska, which has bore the brunt of the latest spruce bark beetle outbreak, joint surveying by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that beetle activity “decreased dramatically” in 2022.

Per a website maintained by that cohort, aerial surveys detected beetle activity on about 48,800 acres of land in 2022. That’s as compared to 2021, when aerial surveys detected activity on about 193,500 acres of land.

In all, the current spruce bark beetle outbreak has affected more than 1.86 million cumulative acres, the vast majority of which has occurred in Southcentral Alaska. According to the Forest Service’s 2022 Alaska Forest Health Survey, spruce bark beetle outbreaks are the “most active” near Soldotna and Kasilof, as well as in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the lower Denali Borough.

More information about spruce bark beetle activity in south central can be found at alaskasprucebeetle.org.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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