Axtel Enterprises, LLC is a two-man team. Run out of Anchor Point by logger Walt Blauvelt, with help from his son and his dog Goldie, the operation can currently be found running just south of the Central Peninsula Landfill in Soldotna.
Blauvelt is helping the Kenai Peninsula Borough combat the peninsula’s latest spruce bark beetle outbreak, which began in 2016 and has already impacted more than 1 million acres of land in Southcentral Alaska. About 145,000 acres of spruce beetle activity was recorded in 2020 alone.
Through an agreement with the borough, Blauvelt is taking down dead and dying trees on borough land around the landfill, which he then uses for his logging operation — either to sell as firewood or, more recently, to build cabins. The borough doesn’t pay Blauvelt for his services and Blauvelt is able to harvest enough timber to support his logging operation.
“We both win,” Blauvelt said. “I get a product I sell to the public, the public gets to burn firewood … [and] the borough doesn’t have to come out here and monitor me.”
Walking through forest where he’s completed removal of dead and dying spruce bark beetle trees, Blauvelt points out juvenile spruce he’s made sure to leave behind.
“When you harvest the forests, you take everything 8 inches [in diameter at] breast height and up,” Blauvelt said.
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 there are specific indications of beetle infection that can be seen with a 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.
The beetles are a quarter-of-an-inch long and emerge from infested trees to fly to new host trees from mid-May to mid-July, when temperatures are above 60 degrees. A single female beetle can lay between 10 and 150 eggs in galleries they construct in the phloem.
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.
In determining which trees need to come down, however, Blauvelt says he looks for sap, which appears where the tree has tried to push a beetle out. During dry years, the trees become more susceptible to infection because they are unable to produce as much sap as they otherwise would.
“That tree’s going to die,” Blauvelt says, pointing to a spruce tree he estimates to be about 60 feet tall. “See the sap running out of it?”
On top of being aesthetically displeasing, beetles kill trees and pose a legitimate risk to the community. Dead trees are prone to falling over and are especially vulnerable to fires.
“A green forest is harder to burn,” Blauvelt said.
The time to act on the outbreak, Blauvelt said, was yesterday.
“The solution was to start five years ago when you even thought there might be another beetle infestation,” Blauvelt said of the current outbreak
It isn’t his first time around the block. Blauvelt said he logged during the peninsula’s last spruce beetle outbreak, in the 1990s. A silver lining of beetle outbreaks, he said, is the work he gets as a result. After the 90s outbreak subsided, Blauvelt said his business almost closed.
“What’s ridiculous is I almost went out of business because I couldn’t get timber,” Blauvelt said.
Now, he says, the problem is that there’s too much wood and not enough to do with it. Eventually — in about 10 years or so — the wood will begin to rot, if it doesn’t burn first. Trees that have succumbed to beetle infection can still be used, but they will eventually begin to “check” or crack, which makes the logs difficult to use for building.
“I can’t log it that fast and even if I could, I couldn’t sell it that fast,” Blauvelt said.
He doesn’t face a lot of competition from other operations on the peninsula, he said.
A symbiotic partnership with Blauvelt, however, is just one element of the borough’s multipronged approach to the outbreak.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough in April submitted a letter to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office requesting assistance in securing federal funding to help address the outbreak. Murkowski sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
In a letter submitted with the project proposal, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said that the need for federal assistance is seen in the threat the beetles pose to borough land and infrastructure.
“The borough successfully completed beetle infestation projects during the 1990s when over a million acres were damaged on the Kenai Peninsula,” Pierce wrote. “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.”
A description of the scope of the project sent to Murkowski notes that it would focus primarily on protecting public infrastructure and assisting private homeowners with larger goals of creating more jobs in the forest products industry, protecting regional infrastructure and encouraging the export of Alaska products.
The borough estimates the project would take about five years to complete and asked that local matching funds be waived due to the “emergency” nature of the situation.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Community and Fiscal Projects Manager Brenda Ahlberg said Friday that the borough has not received a response from Murkowski’s office.
Blauvelt says waiting for a response from the federal government, however, may take too long, and that the time to address the problem was five years ago when people first suspected an outbreak may be forthcoming.
“I don’t know why people didn’t see it,” Blauvelt said. “This doesn’t happen overnight. It got to this point after years of infestation.”
A 2006 study published in Forest Ecology and Management and authored by individuals from the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Kluane National Park and Preserve, among others, found that spruce beetle outbreaks on the peninsula have historically been initiated and sustained by periods of five to six years of warm summer temperatures.
“If this warming trend persists, spruce beetle outbreaks may continue to increase in their frequency and intensity and expand into areas and to tree species that have been uncommonly infested,” the study said.
The researchers found that, on average, spruce beetle outbreaks on the Kenai Peninsula occur every 52 years among mature spruce forests.
“We should anticipate additional large-scale outbreaks in the future,” the study said.
Blauvelt says the current outbreak seems worse than the one in the 1990s.
“It seems like the beetles are a lot more voracious,” Blauvelt said. “It seems like it’s warmer, and they’re having a better time of it.”
Kenai Peninsula Borough Land Management Officer Marcus Mueller said the borough has implemented multiple policies aimed at enabling the public to remove dead spruce trees.
For example, borough property owners are allowed to limb, brush and thin vegetation on vacant borough land within 100 feet of private structures as part of firewise measure without special permission from the borough’s Land Management Division. They’re also allowed to remove standing trees from vacant borough land that pose a “direct threat” of damaging private property by falling.
In looking back on how the borough responded to the spruce beetle outbreak in the 90s, Mueller said it provided a “useful framework” through which to consider their current efforts.
“The 1998 spruce bark beetle task force report identifies strategies that are just as relevant today, only the dates and locations have changed,” Mueller said Friday. “We know from those experiences that we can expect impacts across property ownerships, in neighborhoods, forestlands and right of ways, that disposing of slash will be an issue, and that working with industry and making use of resource values are of key importance.”
In a memo addressed to Pierce, Mueller said the borough is at a “critical stage” as it relates to the current beetle outbreak.
He noted that local agencies were experiencing an increase in demand for slash disposal, with sites becoming “choked” with slash. The borough has worked to compile a directory of forestry service providers to help connect residents with good connections. That directory can be accessed on the borough’s website. Businesses interested in being added to the directory can contact the borough’s Land Management Division. More information about borough policies can be found on the borough’s website at kpb.us.
In Kenai, City Manager Paul Ostrander said in a recent council meeting that a survey of seven properties owned by the city found about 900 dead or dying spruce bark beetle trees. The total number of dead and dying trees across all city property, Ostrander said, is in the thousands.
“I think the problem is much more significant than any of us thought it was even a couple of months ago,” Ostrander said during that meeting.
Ostrander said that the city is “fully supportive” of the borough’s request for $35 million in federal funding to be used to combat the outbreak and that any additional funding for the city would be used to remove dead and dying trees and to potentially set up a slash disposal site.
“At this point, without federal funding, I’m not fully supportive of a slash disposal site just because of some of the things we’ve seen historically, when we had one here before,” Ostrander said. “It becomes a pretty significant cost to whoever does open that up because it becomes more than just slash disposal.”
If the site was funded exclusively with city funds, Ostrander said, the economic burden would be put on residents of the city because the site would be open to anyone.
Residents can further take an active role in reducing spruce bark beetle populations by knowing how to treat and store their spruce firewood. The Alaska Division of Forestry offers guidance on their website about the best conditions for wood at each stage of infection.
For example, a dry spruce log with rust colored or no needles, should be split and used before the following spring to kill lingering adult beetles. Fire scorching the outside of the bark will kill the beetles underneath but keep the bulk of the wood.
As the outbreak rages on, Blauvelt said he plans to continue logging.
“It’s a love-hate relationship,” Blauvelt said of the beetles. “I hate to see the forest infected and dying, right? But it sure makes a lot of work for me. I won’t run out of work and I won’t run out of customers. … It’s good for me, it’s bad for the forest, but at least I’m here trying to clean it up.”