Warming temperatures have fueled a spruce bark beetle epidemic across Southcentral Alaska.
There are currently 1.6 million acres of beetle-kill spruce in Southcentral Alaska, and at least 195,000 acres on the Kenai Peninsula. In 2022, Salamatof Native Association Inc. (SNAI) decided it wanted to “be part of the solution,” said CIRI Shareholder Heather Daniels (Aleut), who serves as SNAI’s residential coordinator and board treasurer.
Salamatof is located on the Kenai Peninsula between the communities of Kenai and Nikiski. The historic village site overlooks Cook Inlet and Mt. Redoubt volcano across the inlet. “Salamatof owns a lot of land, and none of us wants to see it go up in flames—we live here, this is our home,” Daniels emphasized. “Our vision in starting up the new Forestry and Fire Division is to reduce the risk of wildfire across the Kenai Peninsula by removing hazardous fuels.”
SNAI’s Type 2 Wildfire Crew consists of 10 individuals—including SNAI tribal members, Alaska Native/American Indian people from other tribes, and members of the community—who perform fire-suppression and fuels-management duties. They do not fight active wildfires, which requires an agreement with the State of Alaska, “but we’ve been in touch with the state, and they know of our interest in working toward that when we are ready,” Daniels said.
The division tackled its first large-scale project last summer, which consisted of removing dead trees without disturbing the soil or nearby living trees and vegetation. “We accomplished that—we removed the trees with minimal equipment,” Daniels said. “We used a skid-steer and a mulcher, and then we had a couple of four-wheelers that were able to haul logs out. When we were done, you could walk in between the healthy trees as if it was a park. Our guys did a fantastic job. It’s nice to drive by and see it looking so clean.”
The work was done on a Native land allotment. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) fire program provides direct and indirect services for Native allotment owners (allottees). These services include wildland fire fuels management, which allows tribes to mitigate wildfire risk by managing wildfire fuels in and around their communities with BIA funding. Federally recognized tribes in Alaska are eligible to receive funding through the BIA Alaska Region.
“We did receive the award to do the second phase this year on that same allotment,” Daniels said. “Native allotees should know the BIA does provide this service (wildland fire fuels management), so they should reach out if they’re interested.”
Though only in its second season, the SNAI crew is busy. In addition to fuels-management duties, it runs a free firewood program for Salamatof shareholders and veterans and performs land-preservation work. Salamatof is in the process working up an agreement with Natural Resources Conservation Service to perform work on federal lands.
“We’d really like to be able to develop some strategic partners that will eventually lead to a contract award so we can accomplish the work that needs to be done,” Daniels said. “It’s such a big job, and the forest is very important to us. If the trees weren’t here, it would feel like part of our identity is gone.”
For more information, visit salamatof.com. If you are a Kenai Peninsula resident interested in fire fuels management services, call (907) 283-7864 or stop by SNAI’s office at 230 Main Street Loop in Kenai.