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Learn the rules before harvesting timber in Alaska

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Posted: Saturday, May 19, 2012 11:00 pm

DELTA, Alaska - After, I would guess, about four hours of work, I finished my kuksa this week. As you may recall from my last column, I discovered these wooden cups on a fluke while surfing the Internet.

These cups originate from the Sami people of northern Scandinavia who carve them from birch burls. It is said to be bad luck, or in poor taste you might say, to buy one. You have to make it yourself or be given one as a gift to be respectable. This appealed to me. The effort involved in taking something off a tree and shaping it with your own hands into something useful and beautiful.

And burl wood is beautiful. If you’ve been around Alaska long enough, there’s no doubt you’ve seen something made from spruce burls. Probably the most recognizable set of burl animals in Alaska lives on the lawn of the Knotty Shop (a gift shop that celebrates all things knotty) south of North Pole on the Richardson Highway. I’d be willing to bet that 99 percent of tourists who have ever traveled that highway have stopped to admire and take pictures of those usual Alaska animals in unusual burl form.

I thought of all the spruce burls I’ve seen in Alaska and in my backyard in particular and set out on a mission to collect some for some projects I had in mind. The kuksa cup was one such project, and I can’t wait to make another. After a brain-intensive day at work, carving or sanding a piece of wood is a welcome return to a simple, relaxing, mind-clearing task.

I did learn early on while carving not to drain my brain completely, so to speak. I carelessly nicked my leg with my ultra-sharp crooked knife after it slipped off the burl. A certain level of attention is still needed.

Bumming around the woods is one of my favorite things to do. It’s how I spent my childhood. Exploring, looking, smelling, climbing. It all still appeals to me today. Now that the earth is warming, I am again noticing the deeply aromatic scent of spruce heating up in the sun and filling the woods. I would just love to bottle that for dark winter days.

Gathering things from the forest has always interested me, and here in Alaska, the seasons bring a wide variety of things to collect and use or consume. I have been diligent this year to collect some burls and birch bark for projects later on, knowing that this is the time of year when the bark comes off easiest. Same for diamond willow.

Did you know that the state of Alaska has guidelines for gathering what it calls “Non-Timber Forest Products” on state land? The Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Division of Mining, Land and Water, has developed a great resource for educating the public about harvesting Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP). The Forest Products Harvest Manual is a 41-page document that defines the correct way to harvest everything from spruce burls to birch conks to morel mushrooms and mosses. For each species of product listed, there is listed a quantity limit, harvest season and harvest protocol. For example, for spruce buds, the quantity limit is 250 pounds (fresh weight), the harvest season is spring (duh) and the harvest protocols say you may only harvest 33 percent of the tree’s accessible buds and you must use a sharp, non-motorized cutting tool.

No permit is required to harvest reasonable quantities of NTFP for personal use on Alaska state lands. Commercial gatherers must apply for a "Limited Non-Timber Forest Products Commercial Harvest Permit.” The fee for this permit is $100, and additional per unit fees apply. They are available over the counter at any Division of Mining, Land, and Water office or online.

If any of this interests you, check out the manual by Googling “Alaska forest products manual” for a PDF version. In Fairbanks, the Northern Region office can be reached at 451-2740.

Now, if I could only figure out how to harvest that smell of warm spruce.

Brookelyn Bellinger is an independent filmmaker and author of the book “The Frozen Toe Guide to Real Alaskan Livin’.” Send your questions to

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