Alaska’s Forests Left to Die by Government ‘Stewards’

Published December 1, 1999

Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is a lush, green wilderness pointing southwest from Anchorage toward Kodiak Island . . . no more.

From the peninsula’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge north to the Chugach National Forest and beyond, three million acres of White and Sitka spruce have been devastated by the spruce bark beetle. In many stands of these stately trees, the mortality rate has been 100 percent.

The plague, which began nearly nine years ago, was left largely unchecked by state and federal forestry officials until only recently. Though the state of Alaska is now taking action, progress is slow, and the federal agencies have yet to act on lands held as National Forests and Wildlife Refuges.

The destruction could have been prevented, or at least greatly reduced, contends Jack Phelps of the Alaska Forestry Association. He told Environment News that he believes if state and federal officials had moved rapidly in the very beginning, by harvesting diseased trees and using controlled burns, the beetle might have been brought under control. State officials say they’re not sure such measures would have helped.

What is certain is that government agencies made no attempt to check the beetle, which even today is active in 23,000 acres of spruce forests.

State and Private Owners Act

Phelps reported in sworn testimony before Representative Helen Chenoweth’s (R-Idaho) Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, “Alaska Native corporations [as well as other private] landowners have been harvesting their trees, salvaging value and creating economic activity in both the Kenai and in the Copper River area. The state, though initially slow to act, has been aggressive in recent years in selling dead and dying timber from infested stands.

“Nearly 1.5 million seedlings have been planted on state lands in the past 5 years, all paid for by the timber sales program which harvested primarily beetle-killed and beetle-damaged trees.”

State of Alaska forestry officials told Environment News that much of the delay on their part was required by law. Before logging can be conducted on state lands, environmental and public reviews requiring up to 24 months must be completed. Those reviews, in turn, were slowed by the objections of many anti-logging groups and individuals who oppose the harvesting of even dead trees.

Though the state’s efforts were delayed, Phelps expressed confidence that Alaska’s government officials were now working diligently to restore a healthy spruce forest to the state.

While Federal Agencies Remain Idle

But Phelps had little good news to share with respect to the federal government’s efforts on behalf of Alaskan spruce. While the state and private owners have moved aggressively to remove diseased trees and re-forest, no action has been taken on federally owned lands.

“In 1996,” Phelps testified, “under the provisions of the salvage law passed by Congress in 1995, the Forest Service prepared NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) documents for the salvage of 1126.6 million board feet of timber from 18,250 acres.” After spending $7 million to prepare the NEPA-required documents, the recommended timber sales were challenged in court. The Forest Service spent a paltry, by comparison, $35,000 on litigation to defend its timber sale plan, then decided to drop the salvage program.

“That they did this at a time when a very high timber market was developing [which has now nose-dived along with Asian economies], makes the decision even more indefensible. The agency thus chose to throw away the taxpayers’ money already spent on NEPA and to forego activities that would have been beneficial both to the local economy and the forest.”

Not to be outdone by their colleagues at the Forest Service, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is in charge of the 1.9 million-acre Kenai Wildlife Refuge, have also simply left dead trees standing.

Failure to arrest the beetle plague and, later, to log and reforest federal lands, poses risk of fire in the dead forests and also presents a threat to wildlife, according to forest managers. Stream quality and fish habitat are jeopardized, because healthy trees offer shade that prevents water from over-heating and also prevent sediment accumulation from soil erosion.

Forest Service Declares “Green” Agenda

The destruction of the Alaskan forests continues on federal lands, although Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck claims he has shifted the agency’s focus to protecting forests. He has severely limited logging and hopes to shift the Forest Service’s primary income source from timber to tourism.

“What people tell me,” Dombeck recently told Newsweek magazine, “is that they want forests to look like forests.” What several of Dombeck’s own professional foresters have told Environment News is that expanded logging is essential to forest health, and forest experts have expressed serious concern over the federal government’s inaction in Alaskan forests.