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Beetle outbreak in Kenai Peninsula city threatens campground safety

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Sabine Poux / KDLL
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Andrew Carmichael said there are 1,000 spruce on the city's high-priority list. Some, including the one above, have already caused damage at city campgrounds and parks.

Centennial Campground is still deep in winter mode. Thigh-high snow banks line either side of a walking path that parallels the Kenai River.

But in exactly one month, visitors will start descending on the Soldotna campground.

The problem is another type of visitor has descended on the area, too. You can see where — strings of tiny holes in the park's battered spruce trunks .

“They’re weep holes, from where the beetles have gone in," said Andrew Carmichael, director of Soldotna Parks and Recreation.

His department is dealing with the consequences of Southcentral Alaska’s ongoing spruce bark beetle outbreak. Spruce beetles, which resurge every few years in the region, eat away at trees and weaken them, making them more prone to toppling.

For a while, the concern has been that fallen brush could cause fires.

But as the dying trees lose their needles, there’s another, more urgent worry — that unstable trees might fall and hit people walking or camping underneath.

“We used to have wind events and we’d get calls about trees falling here or there," Carmichael said. "Now, after just about every wind event we have, we have a number of trees that have gone down.”

Carmichael pointed to a tree that fell across one of the riverside campground spots, taking out a fence. There’s another on the opposite side of the path, branches strewn across an open patch of snow. They're among the 1,000 high-priority trees the city wants to remove due to safety concerns.

Two years ago, the city won a $300,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to do just that.

But today, on the precipice of summer and with an ever-growing number of problem trees, the city’s worried it's not going to get the money before visitors arrive. The agency still has to do an environmental assessment this summer before it can see the funds in its account.

As Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney said, the trees aren’t so patient.

“The bureaucracy needs to understand that the tree doesn’t wait for them,” he said at Wednesday's Soldotna City Council meeting. “If it’s going to come down, it's going to come down.”

He said if a tree falls on a person or a trailer, FEMA’s not going to be the one addressing the damage.

“It’s going to be the city of Soldotna and the parks department and everyone else,’” he said.

The Soldotna City Council just gave City Manager Stephanie Queen the thumbs up to put out a bid for beetle kill tree mitigation work anyway. Queen said they’re looking at other grant opportunities to cover the costs.

Jeremy Zidek, a spokesperson from the state’s emergency management agency, said his office is working hard with the city to find state funds to cover the project, including all six high-priority sites. He said he hopes they can give Soldotna a solid answer in a week or two.

As a backup, Soldotna could consider using a slice of its federal COVID-19 stimulus funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. Soldotna has a more-than $1 million appropriated from that package, though some council members made clear this week they’d like to have a larger conversation about where that money might go first.

The risk of looking for money elsewhere is that Soldotna could lose the pending FEMA grant. Still, officials agree it needs to happen now. More time waiting means more trees that die or could fall.

Local forester Mitch Michaud has helped Soldotna identify beetle kill trees in the past. He said there aren’t a lot of spruce trees the beetles have spared.

“You can say the beetle has won. Because they've gotten most of the susceptible trees," he said.

It’s not just new mortality that scares foresters. Trees can fall any time — even years after they’re weakened and killed.

“And then you have the issue of once you take out one tree, it makes the other tree more susceptible to fall," Michaud said. "So then you have this domino effect.”

Another quirk about bark beetle trees is that they crack from the top. You can see it in Centennial — tree trunks splintered off in the same spot, like a cracked baseball bat.

Carmichael said the city’s been lucky so far to only have a few tree tops fall on people’s property, with minimal damage. Soldotna’s already done mitigation work in some places, felling spruce at the Swiftwater Campground just up the river.

“For the last three years, four years, we’ve been pulling 200 to 400 trees out of Swiftwater alone, a year," Carmichael said. "And it still looks like we haven't touched it.”

The city's paid for that work through its general fund. But Carmichael said efforts today are larger in scope and require equipment that the city doesn’t yet have. He estimated each tree will cost around $150 to remove — an estimated $132,385 total for work at Centennial and Swiftwater alone, with several other campgrounds and parks close behind on the priority list.

But he said paying contractors to deal with the damage is better than the alternative. And until it can find a way to foot the bill, the city will do what it needs to keep campers safe.

“We may have a limited opening where we just open certain sites," Carmichael said. "We aren’t usually super busy in May. So we can put people here, put them there and that type of thing away from where the danger trees are, as well as then that will allow the contractor to do their magic.”

At this point, anything else might be too great a risk.