Illegal firewood harvesting on the rise

Report: Households use an average of 1.15 cords of wood in winter

Posted: Friday, March 27, 2009

Freshly cut stumps and green boughs of spruce and hemlock littered about the tree line along roadways tell city officials that something is amiss.

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Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire
Brian Wallace / Juneau Empire

"So here's a tree that's got live green branches. This didn't fall down on its own," said Juneau lands and resource manager Heather Marlow, standing along the north side of Glacier Highway near mile marker 16.

Marlow said there's been a significant increase in reports of illegal tree harvesting in city forests that began in the summer and picked up in fall and winter. It's a similar story in parts of North Douglas near Fish Creek.

In November, the city put up a sign along Glacier Highway where Marlow was standing Thursday morning to remind the public of the city's tree cutting policy, which allows citizens to take dead and downed trees from certain vacant lands the city owns for personal use. Selling and trading of trees taken from city land is not allowed and live trees are off limits.

Shortly after the sign went up, someone leaned a freshly cut tree against it.

"Sort of sending a message," Marlow said.

The Juneau Police Department is responsible for enforcing the policy. Marlow said the department has made warnings, but has yet to write any citations for illegal harvesting, which can carry penalties tied to the value of the trees taken.

Marlow said it's a reflection of a growing demand for firewood, both for personal use and in local gray market sales. A greenhouse gas inventory the city recently completed estimated 3,928 cords of wood were used in Juneau in 2007.

A telephone survey commissioned by the state Department of Environmental Conservation of 400 households in the Mendenhall Valley conducted in March 2008 showed that the number of homes with wood-burning appliances - including pellet stoves, wood stoves and fireplaces - increased significantly since the last survey was conducted in the 2003-2004 winter, from 33 percent to 44 percent.

The survey also showed an increase in the average firewood use during winter months, from 1.04 cords per household to 1.15. Combined, that translates into an estimated 47 percent increase in winter wood use over those four years, according to the survey report.

"So more houses are using wood, and those houses are using more wood," Marlow told the Juneau Assembly's Lands Committee on Monday. "We're not necessarily meeting the demand in Juneau at this time."

That isn't to say that local forests have been completely combed of downed trees. The U.S. Forest Service has public land available to harvest from, too, albeit in more remote parts of the borough. But even from the roadside Thursday, legally accessible trees were visible further into the forest.

"But people gotta work for it," Marlow said.

In other words, convenience is trumping legality.

Marlow said she's working on making a user-friendly map showing where harvesting is OK and considering holding a public firewood sale to help address the demand. The wood would come from land being cleared in the Lemon Creek area for a new city gravel pit.

"There is a problem out there, we are doing something to work on it. After a couple years' time, I don't know where we're going to be at," Marlow told the committee Monday.

The free market is stepping in, too. Marlow said some local groups are working with developers to sell firewood.

Alaska Chip, a subsidiary of Pacific Log and Lumber based in Ketchikan, began selling firewood and wood chips in Juneau for the first time this winter. Steve Seley, president of both companies, said their wood is legally harvested from the Tongass National Forest under an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.

He said in a wood stove, properly seasoned wood or wood chips like what Alaska Chip sells is likely a better buy than heating oil or wood from healthy trees. Green wood burns cooler, dirtier and less efficiently.

"I guarantee it's more economical than cutting a few standing green trees," Seley said, though he also expressed sympathy for people looking for a cheap heating fuel in tough economic times.

"Personally, I can't blame the people if you're right up against it financially."

To identify suspect sellers, Seley recommended asking where the firewood comes from.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail jeremy.hsieh@juneauempire.com.



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