Magazine article American Forests

Bugged

Magazine article American Forests

Bugged

Article excerpt

Bark beetles are decimating Alaska's spruce and bringing together the most unlikely of partners.

Story and photos by Jane Braxton Little

Rick Smeriglio is thrashing through thigh-deep snow, batting at the fresh flakes falling on the forest, and talking intently about fire. Even in the midst of this late April storm, it's not hard to imagine flames racing through the logged-over spruce stand surrounding us. Dead trees are everywhere, the victims of bark beetles.

Smeriglio, an environmentalist and firefighter, pulls out a hunting knife and slices into the bark of a nearby spruce, exposing the culprits-tiny white grubs that squirm in the sudden light before spilling out of the trunk and onto the snow.

This grove near Moose Pass is sadly commonplace in south-central Alaska. From Anchorage to the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, a progression of dead treetops cuts the skyline with rustred gashes in an infestation so devastating it dims even the rugged beauty of the timbered shoreline along Cook Inlet. Farther south the damage gets worse. The town of Homer, built among mature spruce on a spit of land that drops into Kachemak Bay, is fast becoming a landscape of grassy vistas fringed with stumps.

But the bugs are transforming more than just the landscape. In this incongruous land of glaciers and volcanoes, deep snows and wildfire, the bark beetles have created yet another anomaly. Along with enormous destruction, they have unwittingly produced collaboration among the humans who share their woods-people who have been at odds for decades. A creature smaller than pencil lead has brought Alaska's notoriously independent residents together to resolve the problems caused by dead and dying forests.

"A lot of communication has taken place," says Mike Navarre, Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor. "When you find common ground in one area, it fosters more common ground in other areas. We've even got credibility across agency lines."

No one thinks communication can halt the beetle kill. The goal of these new-found partners is to coordinate their efforts to protect communities from wildfire and to provide information about the choices facing landowners. Their biggest challenge is money. So far their request for $13.2 million in federal funds has floundered, leaving an alliance with enthusiasm but few onthe-ground accomplishments. That, however, has not discouraged them.

"We're going to do public education and forest stewardship and all the rest. We will," says Navarre, narrowing his eyes.

A deceptively mild-mannered man with great determination, Navarre presides over an area as big as West Virginia known as Alaska's Playground. With active volcanoes smoldering across Cook Inlet to the west and the Harding Ice Field shimmering to the east, the Kenai Peninsula is a still-wild land where moose are almost as common as loons. Now it also has 49,000 residents and more than a million annual tourists who come for the hunting, fishing, and the forests clinging to steep mountains rising up from the sea.

It is the combination of a mushrooming population and a tourist-based economy that raised a red flag over the bug-killed trees. A normal presence in the forests of Alaska, spruce bark beetles (dendroctonus rufipennis) began to spread dramatically a decade ago. The infestation has claimed more than 2.3 million acres-an area bigger than Yellowstone National Park. The beetles have been egalitarian, boring through bark and breeding in trees on private property, federal, state, and tribal lands alike. Some property owners logged their dead trees; others left them standing. Some thought only aggressive action would save the land; others wanted to let nature take its course.

Then, in the summer of 1996, a logging operation sparked a wildfire near Crooked Creek 20 miles south of Soldotna, the Kenai Borough seat. By the time firefighters brought it under control, the fire had scorched 17,000 acres. …

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