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(From WMUR.com) CONCORD, N.H. —Northeasterners who are digging deeper into their pockets to pay for firewood this season can add a new scapegoat to the roster of usual market forces: fracking.
A timber industry representative in New Hampshire said hydraulic fracturing well sites in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale formation to suck natural gas out of the ground are using construction "mats" made of hardwood logs -- think of the corduroy roads seen in sepia-toned photographs from the 1800s -- to get heavy equipment over mucky ground, wetlands or soft soils.
That increased demand has crept down the chimney into fireplaces. Prices in parts of New England are averaging $325 a cord and can even push past $400 for a seasoned, delivered load. That's anywhere from $50 to $75 more a cord than last year -- an increase of 18 to 23 percent.
Jasen Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, said it's not just fracking sites that are hogging the logs. Pipelines and transmission wires -- really, any large-scale construction project -- have in the past three years ramped up the appetite for the perfect mat log: a hardwood trunk, 16 to 20 feet long and 8 to 10 inches in diameter.
As a result, the cost of cordwood on the stump (that is, live trees) went from $10 in 2012 in northern New Hampshire to $15 this year, Stock said.
"If you're putting in a power line or gas line over wetlands or soft soil, they use thousands and thousands of these mats, and they're made of hardwood logs," Stock said. "If you're in the firewood business, that's your sweet spot. That's the log you want."
About 2.5 million households in the U.S. burned wood to keep warm in 2013, just 2.1 percent of total households but up from the 1.7 percent that stoked stoves in 2005, according to the U.S. census. The percentages get significantly higher in more heavily forested New England states such as Vermont (16.3 percent), Maine (12.7) and New Hampshire (7.7), as well as the Pacific Northwest, including Idaho (7.8) and Oregon (7.1).
While New England shivered and shoveled through the harsh winter of 2014-15, the Pacific Northwest stayed mild, meaning more supply and steadier prices this year.
If the National Weather Service's forecast of a warmer-than-average winter in New England holds up, that could mean fewer logs burned this winter, more robust stockpiles of seasoned wood come springtime and potentially lower prices next year. But it won't help consumers who've already locked in their supplies this fall.
Other uses -- pulp and paper mills still value hardwood, and pellet producers and biomass plants also nibble on stockpiles -- have also given loggers more markets.
"There's only so much wood around," said Jonathan Clark, owner of Treehugger Farms in Westmoreland, New Hampshire. The price for his kiln-dried cord went up $10 this season, to $360. Demand, he said, has stayed the same.
"Our calls started early this year and have continued steady," he said. "Even now, we're getting people who are having trouble getting their wood in."
When oil prices started to bubble up, more people in the forest states saw wood as a desirable, locally sourced, cleaner and cheaper alternative. But even as heating oil prices tanked this year, wood got more expensive.
In Maine, where seasoned firewood is selling for about $300 a cord or more, many customers are buying less firewood because of heating oil prices around $2 a gallon. A few are even ditching firewood altogether.
"In a year where oil spikes, we just can't crank the firewood out fast enough. But this just isn't one of those years," said Jeff Lemon from Four Seasons Firewood in Searsmont, Maine.
Some of the continued demand is likely coming from people who converted to woodstoves and are sticking with it. In Plainfield, Vermont, Donny Osman will heat his farmhouse with about six cords of wood this year at a cost of $230 each. Vermonters paid $180 a cord five years ago.
"I think that's fairly reasonable, when you consider how much work goes into getting you a cord of wood," said Osman, 68, who isn't planning on switching fuels anytime soon.
"I would only do that if I couldn't do it (handle wood) physically," Osman said.
In April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the NLEB as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). This bat’s population is down due to a high-mortality fungal disease called White Nose Syndrome, which infects hibernating bats. The NLEB hibernates in caves during the winter and roosts in trees during the summer. June and July are particularly sensitive months for the species, as the mother bats and their pups roost in trees. To allow certain land management activities to continue, the FWS adopted a temporary "4(d) rule" designed to determine how activities may be conducted without being considered a prohibited "take" under the ESA. Complicating this issue is a pending lawsuit brought by a national group, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). CBD is challenging the interim 4(d) rule in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, claiming the FWS failed to conduct an analysis under the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) when it issued the interim rule. The NHTOA will join a coalition of other timber industry and timberland owner organizations as intervenors in this case to support the FWS’ research.
The Silvio Conte Wildlife Refuge, comprising the Connecticut River watershed from Canada to the Atlantic Ocean, crosses four states, including New Hampshire. Established under the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge Act of 1991, the Refuge currently operates under a management plan adopted in October 1995. The management alternative selected under the 1995 plan calls for a refuge composed of private (including easements) and public ownerships totaling 78,395 acres across all four states. In New Hampshire and Vermont the current plan calls for the refuge to purchase 1,200 acres (formal refuges), obtain conservation easements on 760 acres, and establish cooperative management agreements on 11,000 acres.
The USFWS, which manages these lands, is now updating its 15-year management plan, with four alternatives for expanding the Refuge.
This link to the environmental impact statement (EIS) summary does a good job explaining the process and providing maps of the USFWS proposal.
The EIS evaluates four alternatives (A through D). Alternative A is maintaining the current condition and level of activity. Alternatives B, C, and D propose to increase the size of the Silvio Conte Refuge through USFWS ownership by adding two new areas of USFWS ownership in N.H. – specifically, the Mascoma and Ashuelot watersheds. Alternative C is the agency’s preferred alternative.
Current N.H. USFWS Silvio Conte ownership acreage – 7,571
Alternative A, USFWS Silvio Conte N.H. ownership acreage – 8,717
Alternative B, USFWS Silvio Conte N.H. ownership acreage – 25,206
Alternative C, USFWS Silvio Conte N.H. ownership acreage – 53,350 (USFWS’s preferred alternative)
Alternative D, USFWS Silvio Conte N.H. ownership acreage – 55,485
In all these alternatives, the level of allowed forest management is minimal to non-existent. Currently, under Alternative A, the USFWS manages just 225 acres for Woodcock across the agency’s total 35,989-acre four-state ownership over 15 years. In its more “aggressive” management alternatives the USFWS proposes:
- Alternative B: Manage 7,660 acres for forest structure diversity over the next 15 years (510.6 acres/year), and create 775 acres of shrub land across a 96,703-acre four-state ownership, or
- Alternative C: Manage 11,550 acres for forest structure diversity over the next 15 years (770 acres/year) across a 197,296-acre four-state ownership.
The fourth alternative “D” is a wilderness alternative with no habitat management. This would occur over a 235,782-acre four-state ownership.
Negative economic impacts to forest products community (expansion)
Using the 2014 Plymouth State University timber harvesting economic model and the USFWS’ current level of forest management activity, the NHTOA calculated the economic activity lost to the N.H. forest products community and local economy from the additional USFWS ownership of New Hampshire timberland and their failure to manage the timber resource.
Alternative A - $73,032
Alternative B - $1,124,193
Alternative C - $2,918,373
Alternative D - $3,054,492
Negative economic impacts to forest products community (current acreage)
It could be argued the USFWS makes payments in lieu of tax (pilot) payments to the local communities that will overcome any economic losses these communities realize with Federal ownership. To see if this is true, the NHTOA used the 2014 Plymouth State University timber harvesting economic model on the USFWS’ current New Hampshire acreage.
In 2013, three N.H. towns collectively received $24,364 in pilot payments for 7,571 acres. Because it could be argued that a portion of these lands are not productive timberland, the NHTOA assumed only half produced merchantable timber. Assuming 0.5 cords of timber growth per acre per year, with a per-cord weight of 2.5 tons, these lands produce 4,732 tons of timber per year. The Plymouth State University timber harvesting economic model shows the annual timber harvesting economic activity lost on these acres:
Local jobs – 1.89
Estimated direct wages - $194,012
Estimated indirect wages – $37,856
Estimated induced wages - $66,248
Total economic output (wages, taxes, and products) - $482,664
Impacts to wildlife
The NHTOA also argues that given the low-level of current and proposed forest management on refuge lands, wildlife species dependent on mixed timber age classes and early successional habitat (e.g. Woodcock, Moose, etc.) will experience population decreases, as we already see in the U.S. Forest Service’s White Mountain National Forest.
In addition to these economic and forest/wildlife health reasons, the NHTOA has concerns with the process USFWS is using for planning the Refuge expansion, specifically eminent domain and the federal government’s ability to manage the additional acreage.
Eminent Domain (acquisition authority)
While developing the 1995 management plan, the USFWS refused to fully eliminate their ability to use eminent domain to expand refuge ownership. It is unclear what the proposed acquisition authority the USFWS is proposing in options C and D.
The Federal Government does not manage what it already has
The Federal government does not manage the New Hampshire lands it already controls. The fact that USFWS exceeded their target land acquisition goal (over the objection of many local communities) by almost 300 percent is a problem.
Moreover, this trend is repeated with other Federal agencies. For the past decade, the U.S. Forest Service has failed to achieve its forest management and wildlife habitat management goals. Using tax-payer money to add to federal ownership makes no sense.
If the concern is protection of wildlife habitat, forests, and agricultural lands, the Federal government and taxpayers will be better served with an expansion of working forest conservation easement programs such as the Forest Legacy program. Such easements will protect land from development and require forest and wildlife habitat management. Protecting land this way will be far less expensive than federal acquisition and the land will remain on the local tax rolls.