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BETHEL - So many people are hacking down swaths of live trees to reduce costly heating bills that landowners along rivers near Bethel are starting to fear the practice could endanger fish and wildlife habitat.
And with slow-growing trees as old as 200 years disappearing, they worry there may not be much wood left for future generations.
The live wood is being harvested from refuge and Native corporation land along the Kwethluk, Gweek, Tuluksak and other rivers feeding into the Kuskokwim River, said officials with the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.
The search for wood, live or dead, picks up in the spring as piles run low, said Tom Doolittle, refuge supervisory biologist.
At times, it's "a beehive of activity."
Flying over rivers to do moose surveys one day last spring, he saw as many as 100 people in the process of getting wood. Some were actively cutting trees, others pulled sledloads of logs behind their snowmachine and others were headed toward forests with empty sleds.
Permits are required to collect firewood on Native corporation lands around villages, and not enough people are getting them, said Phillip Guy, a corporate land planner with Kwethluk Inc.
"We are concerned about live trees being cut down," he said. "And we are hoping that firewood gatherers will get only dead wood or previously burned wood in the area."
Other corporations trying to get the word out to stop live tree harvests are in Akiachak, Akiak and possibly Tuluksak, he said.
It's illegal to harvest big, live trees from the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, said Shaun Sanchez, deputy refuge manager. Only live trees with trunks 4 inches thick or less at breast height can be cut.
The larger trees officials want to preserve are generally the reproductive stock.
At about 20 million acres, the refuge surrounds nearly three dozen villages along the Yukon and Kuskokwim river delta. Most of the cuts have been observed in the area around Bethel, Western Alaska's largest city with 5,600 residents.
People remove the big, live trees because it's easier than searching for dead ones, said Sanchez. While many collect wood in snowmachines, others have driven up the frozen rivers in trucks and loaded up on green trees. Some cutters have backed up to banks to mow down trunks.
"There are literally areas you can fly over and there's nothing but stumps left," Sanchez said.
Sanchez said he knows that some people are having trouble paying their bills. Heating fuel runs about $6 a gallon in Bethel and more in villages. People pay hundreds of dollars a month to heat their homes in winter, yet jobs and money are scarce.
Thus, the refuge and the corporations want to stop the illegal cutting through education, he said.
But enforcement officers will issue citations, he said. They could run as high as $200 if they catch illegal cutters.
"We're not trying to stop people from taking (dead) wood and offsetting those energy costs," he said. "I pay the same thing as anyone else so I'm fully aware of it."
Treeless tundra dominates the refuge. There's relatively little forest - trees generally follow rivers and creeks. They grow slowly in the cold climate, Doolittle said.
Many of the live trees that have been cut on refuge land are well up the Kwethluk River and along the Tuluksak, he said.
Most of the removal has targeted spruce trees, reducing wind protection for moose, a problem in the frigid winters when they must stay warm to survive. The cutting also destroys bird habitat.
And sawing down the big trees from riverbanks increases the threat of flooding and the amount of sediment in the water, factors which could threaten fish, including salmon.
Kwethluk Inc. worries that all the cutting might hurt salmon runs that people depend on to fill their freezers, said Guy, the land planner. The corporation owns about 138,000 acres around Kwethluk upriver from Bethel.
"We're concerned that too much cutting might create some problems for the spawning grounds, too much sedimentation," he said.