SEWARD, Alaska – by Heidi Zemach for Seward City News –
The sawdust flew thick and fast as people with chainsaws furiously cut and removed free “personal-use” firewood from a staging area near the Chugach National Forest Seward Ranger District office at Crown Point. The forest service made an estimated 150-200 cords of green wood available on Thursday, October 24th, 2013 from trees that had been cut from along a five-mile section of the Seward Highway during recent Alaska Department of Transportation road-paving work. By Friday, some 50 area residents had already picked up permits, and were selecting up to four cords of wood apiece for their personal use. By Monday, only about 40 cords were left for the taking.
It was green wood, so they wouldn’t be able to use it this winter, but that didn’t stop at least 19 people from showing up on the very first day of the opening, and a similar number over the next three days, said Tom Malecek, the new Seward District Ranger for the Chugach.
Many people had been making requests to the forest service for available firewood, he said. Good fuel wood is in short supply these days, and a cord of seasoned fire wood sells for upwards of $300.
“It’s harder and harder to get firewood. That’s the trend. ” Malecek said. “We do what we can to help satisfy public demand by allowing for the removal of dead and down firewood from lands on the forest without a permit; by allowing the removal of decked wood from a variety of projects with a free-use permit; and by occasionally offering timber and firewood removal from designated sale areas, by sale to interested bidders.”
Gathering firewood from the forest is more difficult than it used to be. A large Spruce bark beetle infestation killed a large amount of spruce trees, providing dry wood for a period of about 10 years beginning in the mid to late ‘90s, said Joe Ford, Chugach National Forest’s lone forester: “No permit is needed to cut dead or downed wood, however after the beetle kill, people got used to easy pickings.” Often, there would be a lot available next to the forest where people could access the downed trees, he said. These days much of the remaining beetle kill wood is located farther from trails and inaccessible to motorized vehicles.
The Chugach NF has never had an extensive timber harvest history due to the quality and quantity of the wood, Ford said. Eighty percent of the forest is actually non-forested land; either alpine – rock, ice and snow, or riparian/wetland areas. As a result, there aren’t many timber or mining roads, or even ATV trails by which people can easily access the dead wood themselves.
When the new district ranger reported for duty near the end of the summer, he saw the five-mile construction project underway from Seward Highway Milepost 17-22, and started asking questions.
Three-quarters of the road work was occurring on Chugach National Forest rights- of-way, and numerous trees were being cleared from 40 feet on either side of the road. The state’s subcontractor, Alaska Roadbuilders Inc., was duly removing the timber that it had cleared, and in many cases was donating it to a number of individuals who asked for it. The company had a verbal agreement to deliver the bulk of remaining wood, which no one wanted, to Dave Moyer, a one-man private fire wood supplier with land near Crown Point who runs AK Alternative Heat Service & Supplies, Moyer said. The wood supplier had already received 25 cords, and was clearing his land to receive more.
Prior to putting the road-paving contract together, Alaska DOT had asked for forest service input, but the forest service did not give any regarding tree removal, as they were under the impression then that it was to be a paving project, and that only brush was to be cleared from the roadside, not all those trees, Malecek said.
The district ranger informed D.O.T. of the forest services’ preexisting Memorandum of Understanding with the state that said that whenever state work takes place on federal land, all resources located on it are considered federal property, unless the forest service specifically agreed otherwise. After discussing the matter, both parties agreed that all subsequent trees would be taken to forest service lands adjacent to the old airport runway, for the forest service to dispose of. Furthermore, that the subcontractor would have to return the trees it had been storing. Those residents who had already been delivered wood were allowed to keep it. But once the decision was made, Moyer, (who sells cords he has seasoned and split to area customers) would receive no more.
By then Moyer had already invested $10,000 purchasing a 988 loader, and was clearing his property to store the wood. Customers had been calling him, desperate for firewood he didn’t have. They don’t have the time or the equipment to cut their own wood, he said.
Moyer feels that it was unfair for the Forest Service to reclaim wood that he considered to be his, and that would have helped him supply a badly-needed service for local customers.
“I don’t have an issue with personal-use wood being made available, but when it attacks my business, my bottom line is going to take a hit,” Moyer said. He equated the forest service’s action to Socialism stepping on the rights of Private Industry. It would have been more acceptable if the forest service had made the wood, or a fair portion of it available to private contractors in a regular timber sale, he said.
Alaska DOT typically allows citizens to come remove unwanted wood alongside the road during its road clearing work, he said. This case was unique however in that, as far as he knows, this was the only time that the federal government had forced a contractor to give the wood back, and then had handed it out for free.
Those who want to obtain a personal-use permit for firewood, or to put their contact information on file for future wood that may become available can visit the USFS Seward office during regular weekday hours, Malecek said. There isn’t much wood to hope for, but the Hope power-line reroute, currently underway, will provide a smaller amount of public firewood for those with free-use permits a little later this fall.