Environmental Regulations and Wood Stoves

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The wonderful variety of "airtight" stoves we had to choose from in the '70s has vanished.
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A page from an 1897 stove catalog.

An environmentalist is faced with two primary
objectives.
 

1. To husband the Earth, offering leadership, know-how, and
wisdom (when you find it) in stewardship of the land and
waters–including strong support for the laws and
government agencies created to correct the environmental
mistakes that mankind has made in a mere thousand years or
two.

2. To encourage self-reliance and sturdy independence on
the land–in pursuit of a life of natural virtue,
using little and wasting nothing that can’t be replaced.
“Walk Softly on the Earth, Leaving Only Footprints.”

These pursuits are normally perfectly compatible. But when
they do come into conflict–say, if a homesteader’s
privy leaches into a mountain stream–MOTHER has
invariably held that Earth comes first and individual
interests come second (especially if other readers live
downstream).

She’d demand that the privy be moved and its drainage field
ditched deep and diverted to a drywell–and quick.
Time was, she’d go along with a government agency or a
private lawsuit demanding a clean-up as well–even if
the reader’s independence was threatened. We celebrated
when DDT was banned and the Great Lakes cleanup started.
And we cheered even louder when the peregrine falcon (its
reproductive ability once severely threatened by DDT) came
off the Endangered Species list and the banks of
Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River (that once caught fire from
accumulated pollution) became a bathing beach once again.

But, as early as the late ’80s, it was becoming
increasingly apparent that some government environmental
agencies were overstepping legitimate authority, and some
of the Green non-profits and “public interest” groups were
less interested in benefiting the environment than forcing
an obsolete socialistic political agenda.

Reluctantly, we came to believe that simple lifestyle
options–in housing, transportation, home food and
energy production, home schooling, and even our Second
Amendment rights to protect life and property–that
made the good country life possible were slowly being
curtailed by ever more specious, petty, or
counterproductive regulations imposed by agencies she once
encouraged…especially “one-size-fits-all” policies of the
Environmental Protection Agency, and in particular its
uniform nationwide standard for wood-burning stove
emissions.

Nobody can argue with restrictions on wood fires (or any
other gas or particulate generators) in the Los Angeles
basin or Vail, Colorado, ski bowl, where atmospheric
inversions trap auto exhaust and God knows what other
effusions from too many post-Industrial Age humans crowding
an ecosystem able to support a normal population of bears
and blue jays and perhaps a few stone-age Native Americans.

But, with the wood heat fad that followed the OPEC oil
crises of the ’70s, these fragile environments were
overloaded with the smoke from too many hobby woodstoves
that were ineptly operated by folks more interested in
being politically correct than staying warm. Wood smoke
turned the normal smog a greasy creosote-brown that dyed
hanging laundry and even ate holes in the siding of
mountainside homes. Lord knows what it could do to the
lungs of an ordinary mortal.

But, it bespeaks the death of common sense when the EPA
ham-handedly imposed L.A./Vail-style restrictions on the
rural 90 percent of North America where atmospheric
inversions are unknown and where most wood smoke drifts
away to biodegrade sweetly, just as it has done since the
first lightning bolt started the first fire in a forest of
tree ferns during the carboniferous period 345 million
years ago. And, which it continues to do today– when
natural fires in the West burn hundreds of thousand of
acres of forest (thousands more trees than are cut for cord
wood) each year…with no long-term effect on air quality.
Many if not most of MOTHER’S readers who elect country
living also choose to step off the money-chase and live
poor by conventional standards. But those EPA restrictions
offer them precious few choices in new-built woodstoves,
choices that are too often tiny “hi-tecs” that can’t heat a
big room, clunky catalytics or mechanized pellet stoves
costing $1,000 and up, or site-built firestoves costing
$5,000!

Want to know EPA’s solution for the poor? “[F]or those who
cannot afford the initial costs of a new certified wood
heater, this regulation does not restrict the sale of
secondhand stoves. The secondhand stove market is a major
source of inexpensive wood heating appliances.” (EPA,
40 CFR Part 60: Standards of Performance for New Stationary
Sources; New Residential Wood Heaters; Final Rule. Federal
Register, Part II, v.53, No.38, Friday, February 26, 1988
pgh. 3, col. 1., p. 5864.)

“Let ’em buy used.” It reminds me of Marie Antoinette’s
response when told the Parisian poor couldn’t buy bread:
“Let them eat cake.” Marie lost her head over that
one…but the EPA unfortunately didn’t. Instead they had
the arrogance to prohibit country folks from making their
own stoves out of old oil drums or whatever. Why? Because
of “…sales that will be lost by manufacturers of wood
heaters who have incurred the additional expense of
[building “government” stoves].” The whole emissions
program could therefore only be enjoyed by those
manufacturers who could re-tool their entire stove line.
The end result is that Government forced a particular
market upon everyone. Probably not what the founding
fathers intended.

The Dilemma
 

On learning this, MOTHER shifted on the wood-smoke
debate–recalling her support from government and
passing it totally to her readers. Not that she’s less in
favor of continued environmental protection. It’s just that
the environmental laws that you and I helped effect through
our elected representatives are being implemented by a
bunch of bureaucrats determined to run our country lives
from the climate-controlled comfort of their offices in
downtown, center-city Washington, D.C.–in pristine
ignorance of the problems we face.

Incensed as we are at bureaucratic excesses, we fear most
of all that excessive zeal of the “environmentalist police”
that will turn public opinion against environmental
protection itself–not just the few apparatchik who
are proving the old adage, “power corrupts.”

And, that’s not her only conflict… she is also convinced
that EPA is a major cause of the steady decline the wood
heat industry has experienced since the ’80s–years in
which the market has suffered from increasingly sluggish
sales A major initial cause, of course, was the fall in oil
prices that followed the dissolution of the OPEC cartel.
But, the enduring decline in stove sales is at least as
attributable to the loss of vitality by an industry that is
being smothered in its own restricted emissions.

No Joy
 

Wood heat quite simply isn’t fun any more. If you were
around in the ’70s– heyday of modern wood
heat–you’ll remember the wonderful variety of
“airtight” stoves we had to choose from:
potbellies, parlor heaters, laundry stoves, 6-Platers,
Princess Kitchen Ranges, Franklin Fireplaces, and other
domestic and Taiwanese reproductions of 18th and 19th
century iron stoves. Plus elegant Morsos and Petit Godins
and Jotuls and other European imports in vibrant Dansk
enamel colors, and Fisher’s family of Bears, Vermont
Casting’s Defiant and Vigilant, and the Woodsmen and
Arctics, Downdrafters and Baseburners, and a thousand other
models made by 400 firms in Canada and the U.S. of welded
steel, soapstone, Russian tin, and cast iron.

Sure, they smoked if operated in air-starved mode. And too
many were installed ineptly and dangerously. And too many
flues and stovepipes went uncleaned for so long they leaked
and dripped creosote all over the floor, and posed real
fire hazards. But we’ve learned to handle wood fires in 25
years, and it would be good to offer new woodburners some
reason to accept the challenge of staying warm through the
hard labor of their own hands. Now, the EPA offers them
only two choices in a new-built, efficient log burner: a
generally undersized, expensive “hi-tec” or an oversized
and equally expensive catalytic stove. External
ornamentation aside, “government stoves” are all the same:
too often lacking fire and joy.

No wonder the industry is faltering. You can count the
successful stove makers on the fingers of one hand (check
the ads in MOTHER or any other magazine). And those that
are staying afloat do so only by selling more and more
fossil-fuel alternative stoves such as the gas-log models.
And who can blame them? They can only sell what the EPA
certifies. And in so choking the market with regulations,
the EPA is
choking wood heat in America.

We might be tempted to welcome this development. It means
that wood heat has come back home to the country where it
belongs–even if we do have to chisel a new set of
fire bricks to reline the old Klondike so she’ll keep on
pumping out heat for another generation. Cordwood will be
less in demand, thus cheaper–and a supply of
well-dried hardwood will be a whole lot easier to find if
the home-cut runs short in February.

But, it hoists us onto another dilemma. What may be good
for the country-living, wood-heating readers is not good
for a planet where more wars have been waged over energy
resources than anything else but the name of God. Hydro and
wind and solar power are promising and nuclear fusion may
become a reality…someday. But here and now–today in
North America– wood is plentiful and is our only
really practical self-renewing heating fuel. Its
responsible use should be encouraged.

But, durned if it isn’t government and their wood-stove
emissions-controls that are killing the very industry they
were supposed to give a new breath of life.

Newt to the Rescue?
 

How’s that old Chinese curse go…”May you live to see all
your dreams fulfilled”? Well, we wanted some deregulation
and apparently we’ve gotten it. Newt Gingrich and the new
gang in Congress were elected by voters fed up with an
overgrown government misusing war powers in an era when the
big wars have all been won–and especially furious at
the excesses of EPA and friends. A promising development.
But soon they began comparing EPA tactics to Nazi
Brownshirts, vowing to gut the agency–and
worse–to pull so many teeth from the Clean Air, Clean
Water, and Endangered Species Acts that we’d undo in the
stroke of a pen what it took 20 years to accomplish. The
baby was all set to be tossed out with the bathwater, and
we watched each Washington reform summit with hand-wringing
anticipation.

Fortunately, the new crowd’s first attempts at drastic
environmental reform have been rejected–and rejected
with an alacrity and firmness that is truly encouraging. On
July 29, 1995, in a repudiation of powerful timber
interests, the Supreme Court reversed an earlier Federal
Appeals Court ruling and effectively broadened the
Endangered Species Act of 1973 to protect not just Mother’s
critters but their habitat as well–a clear and
long-needed victory for environmental common sense (the
Apache trout just came off the endangered list–but it
wont stay off long without pristine mountain streams to
live in.). And on July 28, the House narrowly defeated an
attempt by its Young Turks to employ the
“politics-as-usual” methods they got elected to curtail and
heap 17 special-interest-lobbied EPA-limiting provisions on
the back of an appropriations bill…without debate.

Whew!

But, they aren’t done and EPA will certainly be relieved of
many powers it has abused. That’s as it should be–if
the measures are well thought-out and thoroughly aired in
public debate. But, encouraged as she is that the energetic
new powers in Washington (suitably constrained by the Court
and by clearer heads among their own legislative peers)
will bring common sense to environmental regulation, she is
still hung out on the horns of a dilemma. If the EPA stove
regulations are tossed out, life and fun will return to the
industry, we’ll have a broader choice of wood heaters
again, and use of renewable wood will begin to increase.
But, if we take authority for regulating stove emissions
back from Big Brother, we are obligated as well to accept
responsibility for keeping our own air clean and safe. And,
what will the state legislatures do under pressure from
timber or industrial interests that carry much more clout
on a local level? Worse, what will Congress do when our
backs are turned?

For now, we’ll have to just live with the dilemma, keep our
eyes wide open and our letter-writing pencil sharpened.
Because, as we are too inclined to forget, your legislators
will only do what you allow them to.