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Park officials consider banning outside firewood

fr firewoodIn an effort to protect the Great Smoky Mountains National Park forest from disease-carrying pests, park officials have proposed a new regulation that would prohibit campers from bringing firewood into the park unless it’s certified. 

If passed, the new regulation would only allow visitors to bring in firewood that has been heat-treated and bundled with a certification stamp by the U.S. Department of Agriculture or a state department of agriculture. Certified firewood will be available for purchase at the campgrounds inside the park. 

Firewood brought in from outside the park, whether it’s from outside the county or outside the state, can carry tree-killing insects and disease that pose health risks to the more than 30 species of native hardwoods in the Smokies. 

Some of these pests include the gypsy moth, Dutch elm disease, emerald ash borer, thousand canker disease, Asian long horned beetle, Sirex woodwasp and golden spotted oak borer. 

“Several of the impending pests have multiple hosts so cumulative acreage susceptible to all of the described pests would conservatively compose 50 percent of park forested area,” said GSMP spokesperson Dana Soehn.

She added that a loss of forest canopy and tree mortality could lead to changes in fire behavior, stream temperatures — which could impact invertebrate, amphibian and fish habitats — exotic plant invasions, slope instability, availability of hard and soft mast, and increased cost to control fire, manage exotic species and maintain trails and park infrastructure.

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She said the park has received more than 120 comments from the public on the matter since June, and 13 people attended a Dec. 13 public informational meeting held to discuss the new proposed rule. 

Soehn said the feedback received overall has encouraged the park to move forward, but about 15 percent of the comments were opposed to the proposal primarily due to the cost of buying wood instead of bringing it from home. 

She said park officials spent time over the summer surveying areas around the park to check availability and cost of firewood. Based on the survey, she said firewood bundles were generally 25 cents to 50 cents more outside the park. The concession operators in the park have not yet submitted their pricing for 2015. 

David Monteith, a Swain County commissioner, attended the Dec. 13 meeting and expressed concerns about adding additional regulations to public park use. While he understands the need to keep out wood from out of state, he said the local residents should be allowed to bring in their own wood.

“I fully oppose people bringing firewood from other states to burn but don’t understand why people in Swain County can’t bring in their wood,” he said, especially people who live adjacent to the park. “I just think their goal is to let no one burn anything in the park down the road.”

Monteith said park officials said it was acceptable to cut up and burn wood that was already down inside the park but can’t burn wood that falls on his private property just outside the park.

“That’s just crazy, and I told them that at the meeting,” he said. “People could bring in these bugs on their cars. Are they going to restrict cars?”

Soehn said the park discussed a variety of alternatives that would allow locals to still bring in wood but the park was unable to come up with an efficient way to inspect wood for pests. Some of the pests are difficult to detect and there is not an identified method to screen wood individually at each campground.  

“Unfortunately, many areas near the park already have infestations of invasive forests pests. Bringing local wood from home may transport pests to new locations in the park including your favorite campgrounds,” she said. “While the pests may eventually get there on their own, the proposed regulations will help slow or stop the movement of foreign pests, enabling more time for management solutions to be found.”

Monteith said the proposed regulation would hurt people who sell firewood to campers outside the park for extra income. Those small-time suppliers probably won’t be able to afford the extra cost of heat-treating their product.

“No one would have a problem restricting out-of-town wood — just not local. It’s a good income for lots of people,” he said. 

Jill Baker, co-owner of Lumber Jill in Bethel, has made a side business into a full-time profitable business. She has been providing firewood for residents and park visitors for nearly 15 years and when she saw the park was moving toward this new rule a couple of years ago, she invested the money to purchase a kiln. 

The process is expensive — not something every small-time firewood seller would be able to undertake without the proper equipment. Baker said she understands the new proposed rule might hinder “the little guy” selling wood from the back of a truck, but she also knows the risk of anther large blight is too high to allow outside wood inside the park. 

“I was the little guy,” she said. “My firewood is really dry and it’s not cheap to do that. I have two 1,000-galllon propane tanks supporting my kiln.”

As someone who also worked in the forestry service for 12 years, she said she completely supports the initiative to only allow heat-treated firewood in the park. 

She also has a verbal commitment with Smokemont Campground to be its sole provider of firewood. While her bundles of firewood may cost a dollar more than other providers, she said customers are paying for heat-treated wood that is guaranteed to be dry.

“I bought the market with quality,” Baker said.  

She said she has the highest of standards when it comes to providing firewood because she understands the importance of not allowing invasive species into the park.

While the USDA standard for heat-treating is for the wood to be heated at 140 degrees for 40 minutes, Baker’s personal standard is 170 degrees for 75 minutes inside a large kiln. 

Monteith predicts the park will pass the regulation despite the opposition from local residents, but he said he has discussed his concerns with Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows.

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