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Help Your Trees By Burning Firewood

Winter’s over or at least it seems that way. The grass is beginning to green-up in places, spring peepers are singing, and the daffodils are growing well too. If you’ve been burning firewood to stay warm through the cold winter, perhaps the last thing you want to handle is more wood. However, now is the best time to procure and secure firewood. Firewood, unlike other heating sources is not a friend of procrastination. When the two hang out, they often lead to more work or higher prices, smokier chimneys, and colder houses.

Home heating is a significant cost for those living in the Catskills, Hudson Valley and New York State. Residents that are able to save on this cost will have more money to allocate towards other things: home improvement projects, planting fruit trees inside a deer exclosure, building a greenhouse, or even buying healthier food. Currently, the predominant choices for home heating are electric, fuel oil, kerosene, natural gas, or wood.

Farm Abandonment and Forest Regrowth

Trees are by far the most renewable energy resource for home-heating in our region. As a Forester and Arborist, there are plenty of trees; they may not be where we want them or as healthy as we’d like, but they are there nonetheless. Contrary to what some may perceive, forests in New York State are growing two to three times faster than they are being harvested. The misperception probably is derived from the fact that most of the state’s residents originate from more populated regions where development is all too familiar. In upstate New York, farm abandonment occurred throughout the 20th century. Although sunlight is no longer used to fatten cows upon lush pastures for butter and milk, its energy is being stored in other ways; wood.

The wood I burn today is mostly a product of farm abandonment from the late 1960s and early 1970s. In general, many of these trees are those that cannot tolerate shade or competition with other trees for sunlight very well. Black cherry, black birch, white birch, and poplar (aspen) are good examples. Farms that were abandoned longer ago may have more shade-intermediate tree species growing: red oak, white oak, white ash, yellow birch, and white pine. Farms that were abandoned even longer ago – perhaps on rocky soils in more mountainous terrain – may have more shade-tolerant species: sugar maple, American beech, yellow birch, and eastern hemlock. One should remember that shade tolerances are not necessarily preferences. Almost all trees prefer well-drained soils that receive plenty of sunlight. However, it’s a tree’s tolerance to adverse conditions that give them a competitive advantage over another that lead to their success and abundance in a particular area. So, what does this have to do with firewood?

Burning Wood for Healthier Forests

As previously mentioned, New York State has lots of trees, but quantity should not be confused with quality. Yes, poor quality trees can still give you lots of firewood, but cutting the right trees in the right place can lead to healthier trees and forests. How is that?

First, never cut dead and downed trees for firewood. Let them lay there on the forest floor. They serve as good fodder for mushrooms and help build soil and mychorrizae; essential for tree-root health. Leaving a mess may impact your eyes, but to wildlife and forest regeneration, it’s quite a benefit. Coarse woody debris provides structure for songbirds, rabbits, and grouse to hide from predators. In addition, tree seedlings are more likely to survive amongst this mess from lazy deer that find walking over limbs and tree tops too costly.

Second, find a healthy tree, or a tree you like. It could be for aesthetics, its foliage, acorns for wildlife; maybe it’s your only black walnut or mulberry tree. Whatever it is, make sure it has a full, healthy crown of branches and foliage. If it looks like a “q-tip” then it’s not worth leaving. Now, that you’ve selected your “crop tree” release it from competition; glorified gardening on the ultra-perennial scale. The trees competing with your crop tree are next year’s firewood. These are trees whose branches or foliage touch your crop tree’s foliage. They are too close and are competing for sunlight. Once one crop tree is released, go to another and start the process over until your firewood needs have been met.

There, now we’ve had our cake and eaten it too. We have firewood and a healthier forest. Sure, we now have fewer trees, but healthier ones. Think of it like pruning an apple tree. You may have fewer branches, but those that remain, receive more sunlight and produce better quality fruit and a more fruitful tree. The same is true – in general – in a forest or your garden. Simply leaving either alone can have unintended consequences, especially for edibility. Most fruit and nut trees need more sunlight; probably since growing fruit and nuts takes more energy. Cutting trees for firewood provides a valuable role humans provide in the forest.

Remember, always leave tree tops; they make a mess, but improve wildlife habitat, add structure, and help improve forest regeneration. Also, start cutting now. Burning firewood efficiently requires ample time for drying or seasoning. If you burn unseasoned wood, you’ll have to burn twice as much for the same heat value, since water must first be evaporated away. Also, more smoke is emitted from wet wood, leading to chimney fires and neighbor disputes. If you’re buying your firewood, buy it early to season. Firewood processors cut the wood; the seasoning is your responsibility. If you have questions about choosing which tree to cut, and which to save, contact Catskill Forest Association.

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