Most US National Forests allow people to harvest firewood for personal use, but you must have a Forest Service-issued permit and you must follow specific guidelines, which can vary from forest to forest (The BLM sells similar permits for the land they manage.) In my neck of the woods, you can harvest up to 5 cords of wood for $50, which is a great deal considering that buying dried wood can cost anywhere from $240-$400 per cord. Of course, you have to cut your own wood, split, and dry it, but the savings are considerable.
Costs savings aside, there’s something very rewarding in watching wood you’ve harvested burn in the wood stove.
How to Harvest Firewood
The regulations governing wood harvesting in my local national forest are simple, but pretty standard across the USA. The wood much be completely down on the ground before you can cut it up and haul it away. You can’t harvest wood in wilderness areas, near active timber sales, developed recreation areas, or in restricted experimental areas of forests held out for long-term research. But that still leaves a lot of downed wood that’s easy to reach and harvest.
When harvesting wood, it helps if you knows how to identify the best tree species for firewood. Hardwoods like ash, oak, or maple are desirable because they burn a long time, compared to pine which burns hot but very fast. These hardwoods have to sit and dry before use, but that process is usually well underway if the wood’s already been down for a year or two by the time your extract it. It’s worth it however, because you need a lot less hardwood to heat with than the kiln-dried pine that many wood yards sell by the cord.
There’s also a knack for finding downed wood that’s suitable for harvest. A knowledge of the Forest Service, Fire and backcountry roads in your area is critical. These can be found in Delorme Gazetteers or Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlases. The best time to hunt for downed wood is in early spring when the thaw is underway, but there’s still a coating of snow on the forest floor, making it easier to drag wood on a sled out to your vehicle. Winter road crews also discard a lot of downed wood along the sides of roads, including big trees, that are easy pickings.
How to Get Started
Harvesting your own firewood takes work and it helps if you have the right tools, skills, and equipment. At a minimum, you want:
- chain saw
- maul for splitting wood
- plastic sled for dragging wood
- vehicle for hauling cut wood
- rack for drying
A chain saw is a huge timesaver, but it can be a very dangerous tool to use without proper training. Chain saw safety is important and best learned hands-on from an experienced friend or formal sawyer training (good if you ever want to do trail maintenance). There’s also a fair amount of maintenance overhead associated with chainsaws like chain sharpening, tightening, replacement, and lubrication that’s important to learn.
Since you’re cutting firewood, you don’t need a huge chain saw, especially since you’ll be cutting up downed wood and not standing strees. I’ve found a 12″ homeowner’s size chain saw to be perfectly adequate and use an electric Lowe’s Kobalt 40, which has a push button start and is simple to use. This chainsaw saw gives me about 75-90 cuts per battery, which is more than enough to fill the trunk of my car up with wood. Gas powered saws, like an Echo 14″ or a Stihl MS170 have more power than the Kobalt, but they’re also harder to start and maintain, with a lot more moving parts.
I use a Fiskar’s x17 or x25 maul to split the wood I cut before loading it into my vehicle. A maul is an axe with a sledgehammer-like weight on the rear of the head, that makes it ridiculously easy to split logs with the grain. One whack and most logs split immediately. I split the wood to increase its surface area and help it dry faster.
A plastic sled makes it easy to drag wood out of the forest over snow or forest debris. It’s nothing fancy, just a plastic kid’s sled. The trick is to find downed wood close to the road and to minimize the distance you need to drag it.
While it would be nice to have a pickup or trailer to haul firewood, you can do it with a car or SUV just as easily. If you care about your seats or carpet, get a blue tarp and cover your seats with it, before stacking wet wood on top.
Wood Drying Racks
Once you process all of the wood you collect, it has to dry for a couple of months to a year or two, depending on how wet it is when you collect it. Burning green or unseasoned wood, can easily smother a fire, and is best avoided. A wood drying rack doesn’t have to be fancy and some people just stack wood on the ground rather than bother with one. But a rack preserves the wood on the bottom of your pile and helps air circulate under it to aid in the drying press.
While you can buy a commercial metal rack, they’re also easy to build by hand using a simple wood rack kit ($10) and 2×4’s. Then cover the top of your wood rack with a tarp to keep rain off the wood and forget about it for 6 months.
If you heat with wood and live near a US National Forest or BLM property, it might be worth your while to look into harvesting firewood for personal use. While it takes time and effort to find, split, and dry the wood you cut, you can save a fair amount of money if you’re willing to invest some sweat equity in the process. It’s also an excellent way to pass your knowledge and appreciation of the natural environment to your kids, including tree identification, tool safety and maintenance, teamwork, and the satisfaction that comes from manual labor. I know, I’m a hopeless romantic. But as a US citizen, I feel it’s important to remember that our public lands are “our” lands, to be enjoyed and shared in a responsible way for all.
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