Napaimute’s Forest Management Plan (September 2013)

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NAPAIMUTE’S FOREST MANAGEMENT PLAN (SEPTEMBER 2013)

 Purpose And Need For A Management Plan

This management plan was written to guide the Native Village of Napaimute’s (NVN) timber program towards meeting the following objectives: 1) improving the health of the region’s forests while 2) providing employment for local residents.

What is forest health exactly?  Alaska forest health specialists with the U.S. Forest Service FS Health Protection program define a healthy forest as “a condition wherein a forest has the capacity across the landscape for renewal, for recovery from a wide range of disturbances, and for retention of its ecology and resiliency while meeting current and future needs of people for desired levels?of values, uses, products and?services.” (USDA 2010)

The Yupik word Napaimute means “forest people”, and the people of Napaimute strive to live in harmony with the forest and all the biota that inhabits the region’s forests, including the waters that flow through the surrounding timbered and tundra landscapes.

This forest management plan is part of a process that began in 2005 when Napaimute’s Director of Operations began looking closer at the condition of the timber stands surrounding the village.  That same year, a forester with National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Mitch Michaud, visited Napaimute and provided his expertise and assessment of the timber resources on NVN land.

Mr. Michaud’s assessment corroborated earlier timber surveys conducted in the Kuskokwim region during the 1960’s by the Forest Service – that survey work extending from just downstream of the western end of the Kuskokwim Corporation (TKC) land boundary upstream beyond TKC land to Medfra (but only on five miles of either side of the Kuskokwim River).  The survey determined 202,000 acres of productive forested land had merchantable timber, 57 percent of which was greater than 5 inches in diameter; the average tree age available for harvest was estimated at 122 years (Hammons 1981).

The white spruce trees (Picea glauca) at that time were considered to be “relatively defect-free”, with only 2.3% of them being defective.  The hardwoods, on the other hand, were noted as having more defects.  The surveyors found that the quality of timber improved as one traveled upriver – particularly, as one traveled east of Sleetmute (Hammons 1981).

Forty years later those “relatively defect-free” trees succumbed to old age.  In 2009 Mr. Michaud again visited Napaimute and noted that the vast majority of white spruce trees had not only reached maturity, but were over mature and consequently had exhibited heart rot.  He recommended that the prudent thing to do was conduct a “salvage” harvest, harvesting the trees while they still had merchantable value as sawlogs or other products.

Figure 1: Heart rot common in many of the trees surrounding the Village of Napaimute.

Figure 1: Heart rot common in many of the trees surrounding the Village of Napaimute.

Napaimute personnel understands that fire plays a natural role of setting back a forest’s succession (i.e., the gradual supplanting of one plant community with another – Michigan Forests Forever), but also recognizes that there is a critical need to provide firewood to the region given the exceptionally high cost of heating fuel as well as employment opportunities.  Consequently, Napaimute decided to follow Mr. Michaud’s advice and actively manage the local forest to a healthier state while providing regional jobs in an environment where jobs are scarce.

In 2009 a significant windthrow event occurred that knocked over a high proportion of Napaimute’s older trees.  The openness created by the downed trees coupled with further deterioration of forest health only exposed the remaining standing trees to similar events (timber stands in this part of the state naturally have shallow roots which makes them vulnerable to such storm events).  The newly downed trees were highly susceptible to various bark beetle infestations, something that has affected much of the state for many years.

Figure 2: Toppled trees for the 2009 windstorm.

Figure 2: Toppled trees for the 2009 windstorm.

Forest Health Concerns

The U.S. Forest Service found that spruce beetles are the most significant causative agent of spruce mortality in south-central and southwestern Alaska (USDA Forest Service 2010).  A Forest Health Protection Report states that in 2010, spruce beetle activity state-wide declined by nearly 25% compared to 2009 levels; nearly 78,000 acres of dead spruce were observed during the 2010 aerial flights.  However, they noted that overall reductions in South-central Alaska were offset by noteworthy increases in spruce mortality in Southwest Alaska, and a substantial increase in Southeast (USDA 2010).

But in our corner of southwest Alaska, it appears that spruce beetle activity in the upper Kuskokwim has experienced a decline in 2010.  The Kuskokwim outbreak, which began more than 10 years ago, has been in decline for the past several years.  The Big River, in the upper Kuskokwim River Valley near McGrath, has had a persistent outbreak of spruce beetle activity over the last ten years – albeit not a very intense one.  According to the Forest Service, the amount of activity in that area has not varied very much in intensity or size.  During the 2010 Forest Health Protection flights, roughly 1,000 newly infested acres were observed between McGrath and Sleetmute (USDA 2010).

This outbreak is the result of two insects affecting the forests at the same time, the northern spruce engraver (Ips perturbatus) and the spruce bark beetle (Dendroctonus rufipennis).  The Forest Service believes that unless some large-scale disturbance event creates favorable conditions that allow for expansion of beetle activity, beetle numbers should decrease to near normal levels in a few years. One nearby area, however, has sustained?significant Ips engraver beetle activity over the past 4-5 years and lies along the Kuskokwim River between?McGrath and Sleetmute (USDA Forest Service 2010).  That infestation can be seen in the figure below; it’s uncertain at this time whether or not this would progress downstream and affect Napaimute in the coming years.

Figure 3.  Northern spruce engraver beetle activity in Alaska mapped over two decades (1990-2010).  Hans Buchholdt, AK DNR

Figure 3. Northern spruce engraver beetle activity in Alaska mapped over two decades (1990-2010). Hans Buchholdt, AK DNR

On the topic of insect infestations, the infestation about to be discussed shouldn’t affect the merchantable trees in the region, but is indicative of ecological interactions occurring in the region.  This past summer I observed what might be an outbreak of some defoliating leaf miner insect, most likely a moth from the geometrid family.  A substantial brown swath was apparent early on in the summer on the island just north of Aniak (D. Cannon personal observation).  According to Forest Service forest health specialists, these loopers or inchworms as they’re commonly referred to, typically infest alder and willow stands for approximately three years or less; seldom, however, do they cause permanent damage  (USDA 2010).

Doig (2013) notes that leaf-mining insects tend to do well when conditions are warm and dry.  Although the region has experienced wet summers from 2010-2012, this past summer was relatively dry, and possibly sparked the onset of what was seen in Aniak.

Napaimute’s Efforts To Manage The Land

Shortly after the 2009 windthrow event, Napaimute contracted with the NRCS to do an assessment of the timber resources on Napaimute’s land.  A forest inventory involves a comprehensive accounting of the volume of timber on a given plot of land, including the distribution and size classes and stand stocking rates for individual species.  A stand analysis, on the other hand, is less rigorous and the NRCS considered such an evaluation adequate for Napaimute’s purposes.

Staff from the Mid Yukon-Kuskokwim Soil and Water Conservation District was to conduct the analysis in 2011, but unfortunately it never came to fruition.  However, a better understanding of the timber resources on Napaimute’s land has been gained over the past seven years while working with state, federal and private foresters.

For instance, regional lands subjected to disturbances like fire generally revert back to aspen, birch and willow prior to the eventual later successional stages; after about 80 years, white spruce becomes the dominant species.  In the mean time, those hardwoods (i.e., willow, birch and poplar) provide important forage for moose (Alces alces) while accessible, but eventually grow beyond the moose’s reach; from then on, moose habitat declines. (Doig 2013)

A rough estimate of the vegetation types on NVN land derived from a draft Forest Stewardship Plan currently being written for the Kuskokwim  (TKC).  Incorporated into TKC’s plan is a characterization of the various vegetation types surrounding all middle Kuskokwim River villages resulting from analysis of LandSat imagery.

Figure 1: Vegetation type classification within one mile of Napaimute as analyzed in the draft TKC Forest Stewardship Plan (Doig 2013)

Vegetation Type

%

Needleleaf conifer – Woodland

26

Mixed needleleaf – Open

19

Dwarf shrub

17

Water

20

Classification breakdowns are as follows: a needleleaf forest has at least 75% of total tree cover comprised of coniferous species such as white spruce, black spruce (Picea mariana) and tamarack (Larix laricina).  In a mixed forest, both conifer and hardwood species combined contribute 25% to 75% of the total canopy cover.  Woodlands are those stands that have only scattered trees and a canopy cover of between 10 to 25 percent.  Closed stands have from 60 to 100 percent crown canopy cover while open stands have from 25 to 60 percent.

Using the above table as a rough guide, approximately 170 acres of NVN land could be considered capable of supporting merchantable timber…most of which consists of white spruce.  The dominant trees on NVN land are comprised of what is found in a northern boreal forest (a.k.a. taiga), which includes white spruce, paper birch (Betula papyrifera), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides), balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), black spruce, and tamarack.  Tamarack, also known as larch, were nearly wiped out across the state during the last decade by two intense infestations of the larch sawfly followed by larch beetles (Rozell 2007); however, they can be found sparsely scattered about in low lying boggy areas throughout the Kuskokwim region.

The Kuskokwim Corporation’s estimated woody biomass within five miles of Napaimute is 347,782 cords (Doig 2013), but accessing it is not an easy task.  Napaimute’s initial goal of improving forest health was centered on the 650 acres of land owned by the village, and over the course of two harvest seasons our logging crew produced well over 1,100 cords of firewood, house logs and sawlogs from 35 acres.  We had hoped to remove as much of the decadent timber from our land as possible, but logistics being so difficult with our limited logging equipment and the distance from infrastructure did not lend itself to being efficient, effective or economical.  For starters, transporting the finished product by barge is getting extremely expensive so any chance to reduce the shipping distance reduced costs.

Looking More Holistically – Managing For Forest Health At The Regional Level

Although the Native Village of Napaimute is proud of our accomplishments, the logistics of housing and feeding a large crew throughout the summer and winter was taxing…to say the least.  However, we stepped back and reassessed our objectives and determined that both could still be met.

In order to accommodate the needs of a crew, it was necessary to locate a good source of timber closer to a permanent village.  Since much of our crew resides in Kalskag, we identified a plot several miles below the village on TKC land (another benefit of operating near Kalskag is that the shipping distance of wood product to Bethel is 60 miles shorter than from Napaimute).

Over the past few years, we’ve been working closely with TKC and their forester, Clare Doig, and during the summer of 2013 began harvesting firewood that will be sold in Bethel and other downriver villages.  The amount harvested from 15 acres in 2013 was approximately 300 cords and Mr. Doig estimates that there is between 7,000 and 8,000 cords of harvestable timber from 400 acres in close proximity to Kalskag on TKC land.

The primary objective, then, of improving forest health will now be accomplished on a larger scale and falls in direct alignment with TKC’s management objectives.  Mr. Doig has completed a draft Forest Stewardship Plan that will eventually guide Corporation managers in the decision making process in regard to their lands that encompass roughly 950,000 acres.

According to TKC’s draft plan those 950,000 acres are characterized as follows: “Approximately 60% of these lands are mapped as forestlands, which are almost evenly split between coniferous forest, mixed deciduous?conifer forest, and hardwood forest. The remaining 40% of TKC lands are comprised of lands typed as tall?low shrub, dwarf shrub, herbaceous, aquatic, non?vascular, and other non?vegetated land cover types.” (Doig 2013)

An excerpt from TKC’s Forest Stewardship Plan follows:

Plan Purpose

The purpose of the Forest Stewardship Plan is to develop a strategy for The Kuskokwim Corporation to actively manage their forest and related resources; to keep these lands in a healthy and productive condition in perpetuity; and to increase the economic and environmental benefits of these lands. Historically, there has been relatively little timber harvest activity in this region, however with the increasing interest in utilizing wood as a fuel for heating to replace fossil fuels, there is an increased need for The Kuskokwim Corporation to actively manage these resources.

  • Provide for the identification of forest stands available for future supplies of wood products.
  • Improve fish, wildlife, soil, and water quality through proper integrated management practices.
  • Enhance the economic, environmental and cultural qualities of rural areas.
  • Encourage sound, sustainable timber management practices and silvicultural techniques.

As mentioned from economic and overall feasibility standpoints, the logistics for accomplishing the second objective was much easier when improving forest health in close proximity to a permanent village, especially when the village is where the employees reside.  It is the hope of both Napaimute and TKC to expand efforts and conduct similar forest harvests near other regional villages, thereby providing additional employment opportunities.

A word of caution!  U.S. Forest Service forest health specialists note that the northern spruce engraver beetle activity has historically been concentrated in the interior part of the state, mostly along river flood plains and disturbed areas – be they natural or human caused (USDA Forest Service 2010).  Other likely locales for the incidence of Ips infestations include those that regularly experience natural soil erosion, ice scour, or sediment deposition (e.g., areas where silt builds up following river break-up); also, areas where tree top breakage from heavy snow loading, timber harvest, high wind events, and wildfire occurrence can harbor outbreaks of the spruce engraver beetle (USDA Forest Service 2010).

So, incorporating forestry best management practices intended to minimize the encouragement of any problematic insect population during harvest operations is of the utmost importance, otherwise the work Napaimute does to improve forest health could actually backfire to where our activities could cause more problems than we prevent.  Subsequently, our field personnel will do their utmost to comply with the Alaska Forest Resources and Practices Act which states: All forest clearing operations must be designed to reduce the likelihood of increased insect infestation and disease infections that could threaten forest resources (as per Sec. 41.17.082 Article 1 Ch. 17 of 11 AAC 95 June 2007).

In addition, all work will be done in an orderly and workmanlike manner using the methods and practices generally acceptable in the logging industry to the extent practical with special attention to the previously mentioned Forest Resources & Practices Act.

Following are standards incorporated into the agreement between the Native Village of Napaimute and the Kuskokwim Corporation that will minimize or avert negative impacts to the land and waters during harvest operations while operating on TKC land; however, these standards – as a minimum – will also be followed on any other private land, including our own, that the Native Village of Napaimute conducts logging activities (State and other public land will have more stringent riparian standards applied):

 All activities will be conducted in such a manner as to prevent or avoid damage to cultural resources, natural features, and wildlife.  Operations shall prevent the depositing of sand and gravel, rock, excavated material, stumps, or other debris outside the sale perimeter.

All facilities used or constructed in connection with timber operations will be kept in a neat, clean, safe and sanitary condition.

All lands will be clear of garbage, refuse, logging and human debris, etc., except at permitted or authorized disposal sites.

No fuel shall be stored, no vehicles shall be fueled or serviced, and vehicles leaking fuel, hydraulic fluids, or other pollutants will not be operated below the ordinary high water line (OHW line) of any water body.  Vehicles identified to have such leaks will be repaired immediately. 

Upon the discovery of any archaeological materials and other cultural resources, including historical and cultural artifacts uncovered during logging operations, a TKC representative will be immediately notified.  No cultural resources or archaeological materials, including historical and cultural artifacts, will be disturbed or removed.

 Slash and other materials will not be allowed to accumulate on any area to the extent that it will hinder natural or artificial regeneration or provide host material for forest pests, primarily the northern spruce engraver beetle (i.e., Ips).

No harvesting of timber will occur within 33 feet of the Kuskokwim River or its bank (classified as a type IIIB) and between 33 and 66 feet – 50 percent of the white spruce nine inches and greater must remain.  (AS41.17.116(c))

Harvest along sloughs and other important fish bearing streams classified as type IIIA will be at a minimum of 66 feet. (AS41.17.116(c)) 

Excavated materials will be handled in a manner and deposited in a location sufficient to prevent reintroduction into the Kuskokwim.

All bank cuts, slopes, fills, and other exposed earthwork associated with our activities will be stabilized to prevent erosion during and after the activity.

Reforestation efforts will rely on natural generation on mechanically scarified soils.  A minimum of two white spruce trees per acre will be left standing with the goal of producing 450 viable seedlings per acre within seven years of the harvest activity.

All precautions and every reasonable effort to prevent and suppress forest fires will be deployed; pulaskis, shovels and bladder bags will be on site. 

******************

Not part of TKC’s Detailed Plan of Operations, but upon completion of the timber sale agreement, or any other harvest operation that Napaimute conducts in the future, the undersides, tracks and wheels of all equipment will be thoroughly cleaned on site before moved to a new location so not to transport invasive plants or seeds – if present – to other locations.

REFERENCES

Doig, Clare. 2013 (Draft).  The Kuskokwim Corporation FOREST STEWARDSHIP PLAN: A Forest Stewardship Plan for lands owned by The Kuskokwim Corporation, surrounding the Native Villages of Stony River, Sleetmute, Red Devil, Georgetown, Crooked Creek, Napaimute, Chuathbaluk, Aniak, Upper Kalskag, and Lower Kalskag.

Hammons, John. 1981.  Forest Development Potential in the Middle Kuskokwim.  Reid, Collins Inc. Anchorage, AK 99501.

Michigan Forests Forever Teacher’s Guide – Succession And Forest Change

http://mff.dsisd.net/Environment/Succession.htm

Rozell, Ned. 2007, April 19. Alaska tamaracks still hanging on after attack.  Far North Science website:

http://www.farnorthscience.com/2007/04/19/ak-sci-forum/alaska-tamaracks-still-hanging-on-after-attack/

U.S.D.A. 2010.  U.S. Forest Service, Forest Health Protection http://www.fs.fed.us/r10/spf/fhp/ Steve Patterson, Assistant Director S&PF, Forest Health Protection Program Leader, Anchorage; spatterson@fs.fed.us.

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