Mat-Su Timber Deal Could Make Harvesting of Beetle-Killed Spruce on CIRI Land Viable

Spruce trees on CIRI land in the Mat-Su Valley. Photo by Ben Mohr.

Though only a quarter inch in length, spruce bark beetles can wreak outsized devastation. Over the past 35 years, spruce beetle outbreaks in Alaska have contributed to the loss of an estimated 3 billion board feet of timber. The insects feed and breed on wind-thrown, fallen or injured spruce trees. A large, downed spruce tree may contain more than 100 beetles per square foot of bark. When conditions are right, beetle populations may outgrow the supply of downed trees and move into nearby living trees.

From 1997 to 2002, CIRI harvested 16,000 acres of beetle-killed timber on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. Unfortunately, beetle infestations are up, and CIRI land in the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Valley has been hit hard. If a proposed timber sale on borough land in the Mat-Su Valley goes through, it could create a market of scale that would once again make a timber program viable for CIRI.

Chijuk Creek Timber Sale

On April 18, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly approved a timber sale known as Chijuk Creek. It also approved a separate non-compete contract for any logs shipped from Port MacKenzie to Pacific Rim countries for three years. Chijuk Creek and the associated lease of Port MacKenzie are expected to bring in $900,000 annually. “Now that the Chijuk Creek sale has gone through, we’ll see ships coming into port and logging trucks on the road,” said Ben Mohr, CIRI’s surface estate manager. “That would allow CIRI to consider commercial timber sales as an option.”

CIRI owns between 5,000 and 7,000 acres of harvestable timber in the Mat-Su Valley.

“If we’re going to harvest timber on CIRI land, the company needs an economy of scale to enter into,” Mohr explained. “The Chijuk Creek sale allows us to keep our options open. From a land-management perspective, if we can help the land by harvesting beetle-killed timber and benefit our shareholders financially, we would absolutely want to do that.”

Environmental Considerations

When CIRI harvested beetle-killed timber on the Kenai Peninsula, it planted nearly one million trees as part of its reforestation program. “The forests we’re talking about in the Mat-Su Valley are overmature and the beetle infestation is as bad as it once was on the Kenai Peninsula,” Mohr said. “You’ve got two options: harvest the timber, or watch it burn. That’s the long and the short of it. Also, from an environmental perspective, young growing forests consume and sequester a lot of carbon and are much more productive than the overmature trees that are there now.”

Modern forestry practices mimic natural regenerative processes like forest fires, but without the same danger to life and property. At the three-to-five-year mark, browse vegetation appears, bringing moose and other wildlife to the area. Complete reforestation is typically a 15-year process, and maturity is achieved at 60 to 100 years.

Project Logistics

A company called Denali Timber Management would log and chop the Chijuk Creek trees. Denali would use contracted log trucks to haul the wood to Port MacKenzie. The company plans to export round logs from the port to China and the Pacific Rim, through the company TPT Forest Products Limited. TPT is based in Tauranga, New Zealand, and is the largest exporter of round logs in the world.

“Right now, CIRI is waiting to see how Chijuk Creek plays out; we haven’t made any decisions regarding our own timber yet,” Mohr said. “But if a Mat-Su log-export business does become viable, we’re open to considering a timber program. Local jobs, reduced fire danger, environmental benefits and economic advantages for CIRI – it’s a win for all involved.”