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As demand for firewood increases, so does illegal cutting

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Posted: Sunday, January 6, 2013 5:45 am | Updated: 12:02 pm, Mon Jan 7, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Commercial logger Jeff Ward doesn’t mind it when people ask him if they can cut firewood on one of the state or borough timber sale areas he purchased in Two Rivers, about 25 miles east of Fairbanks off Chena Hot Springs Road. In fact, most times he’ll go ahead and let them cut some firewood, as long as they do it where he tells them.

It’s the people who don’t ask that rattle the cage of his skid steer.

“If they come out and ask, I’ll point them to a slash pile they can cut,” said Ward, who when decked out in dirty, black Carhartts from head to toe has the look of a logger. “I don’t get too many people asking.”

But he has plenty of people cutting firewood in his timber sale units. Enough that Ward started putting up gates on the roads leading into his timber sale units and hired a caretaker to live onsite in a small cabin.

Some people don’t know any better, Ward said. They see wood being cut and figure they are in the state’s personal-use firewood cutting area, which is located several miles up the road, and start whacking away. Others, though, know exactly what they’re doing, and what they’re looking for.

“I’ve actually had somebody tear a gate down and go in and cut firewood off my decks,” Ward said, referring to piles of large birch and spruce waiting to be processed into lumber.

As Fairbanks residents struggle with some of the highest energy costs in the country, many are turning to cutting and burning firewood to save — or in some cases make — money. As with any sought-after commodity, the surging demand for wood has spawned a growing cult of illegal and misguided woodcutters on state, borough and private lands, officials say.

“I’ve definitely seen an increase,” Ward said of illegal woodcutting.

Demand for firewood

State and borough officials blame it on a growing demand for firewood as more people switch to wood stoves to save money on heating fuel.

“People want to heat their homes, and there’s a lot of wood out there,” said state forester Kathryn Pyne with the Division of State Forestry in Fairbanks. “They’ll take it wherever they can get it.”

The state Division of Forestry in Fairbanks has had problems with illegal cutting on Rosie Creek, Standard Creek and Bonanza Creek roads. Some people are cutting in areas that are closed, while others are cutting down large, live spruce trees.

“We’ve never allowed large diameter spruce to be cut, and they’ve been targeting those,” Pyne said.

Borough land managers have seen similar problems on borough land.

“There has been an increase in problems,” said Cora Shook, a land management specialist with the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

Both the state and borough issue permits to cut firewood on their land, but the permits are for designated areas only. The state last year began flagging and signing the boundaries of its woodcutting areas to help cut down on illegal or misguided woodcutting and the borough started doing the same last summer, Shook said.

Cheap alternative

Cutting firewood on borough and state land is much cheaper than buying it. The borough charges only $5 per cord with a 20-cord maximum while the state charges the same price with a three-cord minimum and 10-cord maximum. A cord of firewood typically sells for $250 to $300 on the open market.

Illegal woodcutters come in different forms. Some don’t bother getting a permit. Some cut in non-designated areas. Some cut more than their permit is good for. Some sell the wood they’re cutting with their personal-use permits. In November, Pyne said she counted about 40 people selling firewood on Craigslist in the Fairbanks area and only a few were commercial contractors who have purchased timber sales from the state, she said.

“At $300 a cord, it becomes lucrative,” Pyne said.

Neither state nor borough officials know how prevalent illegal woodcutting is, just how many permits they issue and how much wood people say they are going to cut because the permit system is run on an honor system. After a huge spike in 2008 when heating oil prices initially skyrocketed, the number of permits the state issues has plateaued between 650 and 720 for the past four years. Last year, Fairbanks-area forestry issued 648 permits for 3,860 cords of firewood, an average of 3.5 cords per permit. This season, the state had issued 665 permits as of Nov. 1.

Commercial woodcutters say they’ve been competing against illegal woodcutters for decades, even before the price of heating oil skyrocketed.

“Anybody with a pickup truck and a chain saw is in the wood business until their pickup craps out or their chain saw breaks,” said commercial contractor Rich Hall of Rustic Alaskan Homes.

Hall estimates about 80 percent of firewood cut on borough and state land is cut illegally.

“I know people who have cut hundreds of cords on a five-cord permit,” he said.

Lack of enforcement

With little or no enforcement powers, there isn’t much the state or borough can, or will, do about illegal firewood cutting.

Unless it’s on private property or comes from a commercial contractor who is reporting a theft, Alaska State Troopers contact the Department of Natural Resources or borough when they get calls about illegal woodcutting, Sgt. Jess Carson said.

“It’s their land and they are responsible for enforcement on it,” he said. “That’s pretty much the extent of our involvement there.”

The state has close to 200 miles of logging roads in the Tanana Valley State Forest, but it doesn’t have any “timber cops” to patrol them, Pyne said. Most of the illegal cutting occurs during the evening or on weekends, she said.

“Those are the times they know we won’t be patrolling and looking around,” Pyne said.

The Division of Forestry doesn’t have authority to issue citations, though the agency can work with state park rangers, who do have that power, Pyne said. She couldn’t recall the last time someone received a citation for illegal woodcutting on state land.

Likewise, the borough doesn’t devote many resources to tracking down illegal woodcutters.

“We’re a small department,” Shook said. “We can’t have firewood enforcement officers out there.”

The best the state and borough can do is rely on citizens and commercial contractors to provide license plate numbers and vehicle descriptions of illegal woodcutters. Even then, all the borough or state does is basically send a letter or call the offender to inform him or her that they are supposed to have a permit or they were cutting in a closed area.

“We don’t issue citations,” Shook said. “We don’t have a lot of teeth in our regs.”

The only course of action the borough has is to file a civil suit against someone illegally cutting firewood, an expensive process they wouldn’t do for a few cords of wood, she said.

The borough’s approach to the problem has been to open more areas to personal-use firewood cutting but that’s easier said than done, Shook said.

“The issue is trying to get it close enough to town so it’s convenient to people and in an area where it won’t cause conflicts,” she said.

The state is trying to capitalize on old burn areas by opening accessible areas to woodcutting, Pyne said. The DNR worked with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to open burn areas off the Steese and Elliott highways to woodcutting, Pyne said. The state would like to do the same thing with an area off Murphy Dome Road in what was the Hard Luck Creek Fire in 2009. The problem, Pyne said, is developing access to those areas. In many cases, there are multiple land owners involved, she said.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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