Fuel costs drive Alaskans to cut their own firewood

Posted: Monday, January 30, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Cutting your own firewood is once again fashionable in Interior Alaska, where residents are firing up their chain saws in hopes of slashing home heating bills this winter.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources this fall expanded its cut-your-own firewood program to open up more state land in the Interior for people willing to work for $5 a cord.

Now, residents who don't mind putting in some sweat equity to heat their homes have more than 200 miles of roads in the Interior - where winter temperatures can plunge to 50 below and stay there for days - to access state land where firewood can be had practically for free.

"Alaskans have a tradition of relying on firewood as a heating fuel of last resort, and with the current high prices of fuel oil we want to help make fire-killed wood from our Interior forests available for firewood," said Dean Brown, acting director of the state Division of Forestry.

There's some good wood to be had, said Chris Maisch, the division's northern regional forester. Since 2002, wildfires have scorched more than 13 million acres of land in Alaska - nearly all of it in the Interior. Those trees killed by the fire but not consumed by it are well-seasoned by now, he said.

Before the surge in the price of home heating fuels, it was normal for about 200 permits to be issued on a yearly basis, said area forester Marc Lee. In 2004, 180 permits were handed out. Last year, the number increased to 308 permits. Lee said he wouldn't be surprised to see more than 500 permits issued for 2006.

It's a simple matter of dollars and sense, Lee said.

A gallon of fuel oil is equivalent to about 133,000 BTUs. A cord of birch is about 22 million BTUs. That means a cord of birch is equivalent to about 165 gallons of fuel oil, or about $410 at the going price, Lee said.

A cord of split birch this year is selling for about $200 in the Interior, where it is easy to go through seven or more cords a winter to heat a modest-sized home.

Twenty-five years ago, about three-quarters of homes in the Fairbanks area had wood stoves, and of those about 25-30 percent used wood as their sole source of heat. At that time, the state routinely issued more than 2,000 permits a year to Fairbanks area residents who wanted to cut their own firewood on state land.

In recent years, that number has plummeted to just over 200 permits - a tenth of what it once was.

The reason the cut-your-own tradition fell from favor is simple, Lee said. Home heating fuels were relatively affordable.

"With the price of fuel going up everyone is interested in cutting firewood," Lee said.

With a permit, Alaskans can cut from three to 10 cords of dead-and-downed trees each year for their personal use, Maisch said.

The Division of Forestry is providing maps showing roads and trails to access the cut-your-own areas, most of them in the 1.8 million-acre Tanana Valley State Forest.

But that's about where the help stops, Lee said.

"They have to be prepared to go out in the woods, and we give them maps, and they find their way around," Lee said.

There have been a few accidents.

"Some people get too close to the trees their cutting and dump a tree across their truck," said Lee. "Not good."

The program has the added benefit of helping clean up the downed and dead trees from the forest. Some of the best pickings can be found in the piles of leftovers from commercial logging operations.

"They (the logs) are all in a pile," he said. "If you can get them after a logger is done it is a pretty great deal."

A big snowstorm a few years ago also bent over a lot of birch trees. The program is a good opportunity to get those leaners, Maisch said.

In the past, the cut-your-own program allowed only dead or downed trees to be taken. But this year, some green birch was included because the interest in the program is so high, Maisch said.

The cut-your-own green birch is mostly along logging roads. Cutting those trees is helping to widen the narrow logging roads, he said.

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