Spruce trees infested with beetles can be seen on July 2, 2021, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Spruce trees infested with beetles can be seen on July 2, 2021, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai signs onto beetle funding request

The peninsula’s latest spruce bark beetle outbreak has impacted more than 1 million acres in Southcentral Alaska.

The City of Kenai became the latest municipality to support the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s request for $35 million from the federal government, which would be used to combat the peninsula’s spruce bark beetle outbreak. The peninsula’s latest spruce bark beetle outbreak began in 2016 and has already impacted more than 1 million acres in Southcentral Alaska. About 145,000 acres of spruce beetle activity was recorded in 2020 alone.

“The severity and magnitude of the outbreak is beyond the capacity of the Borough and the Cities and will require federal assistance to address this critical forest crisis on private and public property in the Kenai Peninsula Borough,” Kenai’s resolution says.

Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel said he supports the effort “wholeheartedly” and that the peninsula was fortunate to have had a cool summer this year but that, in the meantime, the city is “playing with fire.”

“I think this definitely is something we need to do and something that needs to happen fairly quickly,” Gabriel said during the Kenai City Council’s Wednesday night meeting. Beetle-kill trees pose a legitimate risk to the community because dead trees are prone to falling over and are especially vulnerable to fires.

The Soldotna City Council has also backed the borough’s funding request.

“Federal assistance in addressing this critical forest crisis is necessary to mitigate the hazardous impacts on private and public property in the Kenai Peninsula Borough,” Soldotna’s resolution says.

If awarded, the funding would be used to mitigate the impact of beetle infestation on the Kenai Peninsula. In a June 15 memo, Kenai Peninsula Borough Land Management Office Marcus Mueller said the borough’s spruce bark beetle problem has reached a “critical stage,” and that funding would go toward measures like impact assessment of beetle kill areas, slash management, hazard tree removal and reforestation.

“The borough successfully completed beetle infestation projects during the 1990s when over a million acres were damaged on the Kenai Peninsula,” wrote Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce in a letter accompanying the request. “The size and cost of this enormous project warrants the need for federal assistance that will benefit all citizens in protecting their homes and the public infrastructures that they rely upon.”

Spruce bark beetles target mature trees and are mostly found in white spruce, Lutz spruce, Sitka spruce and sometimes black spruce, according to a project published by the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Infected trees are pretty easy to identify due to discoloration that can be spotted from far away, but other signs can be seen upon closer inspection of the bark.

Spruce bark beetles kill trees by boring through bark and feeding in a tree’s phloem, according to the National Park Service. Phloem is the innermost layer of the bark and transports compounds produced through photosynthesis to other parts of the tree. By disrupting that process, beetles are able to starve the tree and cause it to die. That death is accelerated by a fungus brought by the beetles that prevents the movement of water through the tree.

A common indicator of beetle presence is boring dust, similar to sawdust, which collects at the base of the infected tree and in bark crevices. The dust is pushed out of holes in the bark where beetles enter and clear tunnels under the bark. Pitch tubes, or red globs on the surface of the tree bark are seen where the tree has tried to push the beetles out.

The City of Seldovia, the City of Seward, the City of Homer and Kachemak City are all also included in the joint resolution.

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

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