Good wood: How you can enjoy your campfire this summer while protecting Michigan's forests

John Bedford used to be one of those guys. He'd transport firewood around Michigan without a care in the world.

Bedford earned a forestry degree from Michigan Technological University, where he studied urban tree care. He then got a landscaping job and worked his way up to managing a large tree care company in the Detroit metro area.

"We had a mountain of firewood made out of trees that died for all sorts of reasons. It was readily available, at no cost to me, and so when me and the buddies went campin', I was the wood guy. I'd load up the wood and take it to the campsite," Bedford admits.

His admission is akin to a priest confessing that he was a debaucherous sinner before putting on the collar. Bedford's now the Pest Response Program Specialist for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. And that means he knows that moving firewood around the state willy-nilly amounts to a cardinal offense.

Bedford tracks the bugs and diseases that ravage Michigan's trees, focusing "on forest pests and all things related to them, and education and outreach, getting people informed," he says from his Lansing office. He tells the public how to identify and how to report problems.

He knows that campfires are part and parcel of the camping experience.

"Yup, it's a big social thing," says Bedford. "It's the gathering spot where everyone sits and tells lies and stories and jokes.... It's so ingrained that, if you go camping, you have to have firewood and have to have a fire. A lot of times, people want to make use of that tree that died in their front yard, and in an effort to save money on buying firewood at their destination, will transport wood."

Bedford's message to would-be campground fire starters: Don't move firewood.

When he took wood from the dead pile at work to burn on camping trips, "that was long before the risks of moving pests and diseases on firewood became a real issue. People just didn't think about that kind of stuff until we had emerald ash borer. It's been proven many times that emerald ash borer moved across the landscape much quicker than it could've moved on its own. And that's because people were moving infested firewood."

The emerald ash borer—an invasive insect from Asia that is suspected of arriving in the Detroit area in the '90s—was identified as a Michigan threat in 2002. Since then, the bug has wiped out virtually all of the state's ash tree population, and is likely going to be a $12.5 billion problem in North America by 2020.

It's been able to spread so far, so fast, thanks to the transport of firewood, Bedford says.

"I was responsible for some of the earlier survey work for emerald ash borer," he says. "And it wasn't coincidental that some of the places it first showed up were either at or in association with campgrounds, which we found when we did that survey work."

Not only is moving firewood harmful, but it can also be illegal.

"If your home is in the Lower Peninsula and your camp is in the Upper Peninsula, and the tree is a hardwood, then it would be illegal for you to move that wood. We have a quarantine in place that prohibits the movement of all hardwood firewood from the L.P. to the U.P.," says Bedford. "That's part of the state's interior emerald ash borer quarantine."

Other quarantines are in place. For example, there's a quarantine on firewood coming from any state with an infestation of thousand cankers disease of black walnut (caused by an insect native to the U.S. Southwest, plus a newly identified fungal pathogen) n place for all of Michigan.

And even though you might not see insects on a piece of wood, says Bedford, that doesn't mean it's safe to move it.  

"If you don't know why that tree died, you may be unwittingly taking something from your home to your camp that could infest or infect the trees on the property at your camp," says Bedford. For instance, if that tree was an oak tree... and that tree died of oak wilt, you may be unwittingly carrying the spores for oak wilt from one location to another, and make the trees at your camp vulnerable to infection from oak wilt.

That's what park officials believe happened at PJ Hoffmaster Park, south of Muskegon.

Eric Leaf, Michigan Department of Natural Resources ranger at P. J. Hoffmaster State Park, estimates that the park lost 400 mature oaks to oak wilt disease in the last five years. Why? Eric Leaf at PJ Hoffmaster Park. Photo by Mark Wedel.

"Firewood being brought in," says Leaf. "And it seems that, once it spreads, we've had pockets almost every winter since I've been here."

The disease outbreak started around 2011. Dead and dying trees were removed around the campground. As it spread to other areas of the park, staff had to create "a ton of stumps," Leaf says.

In the absence of the trees' shade, thickets of sassafras saplings and ankle-scratching thorny weeds have thrived in the campsite.

"You used to be able to walk without going through all these shrubs in between sites. This area in between is turning into solid bushes.... It changes the whole layout of the campground."

In the past few years, DNR flyovers have spotted more outbreaks in the park. Rangers have made efforts to save trees and have gotten some outbreaks under control. But there is still the potential that the disease could reemerge—or return on firewood brought to the park, Leaf says.

Enforcing the quarantine is difficult, Bedford says; it relies mainly on education and complaints.

"We're not able to do a lot of active surveillance for firewood movement," he says. "I keep the state police advised of our quarantine requirements and restrictions for emerald ash borer, so if they've pulled someone over for a traffic stop or something else, and the person has firewood, at least they have the information they need to ask the right questions, who to report to if they suspect a violation."

At one time, an inspection station at the north end of the Mackinac Bridge was open year-round, 24 hours per day, but was stopped due to funding cuts.

"We do have signage at the Mackinac Bridge that tells people they're not allowed to take firewood into the Upper Peninsula and directs them to the Mackinaw City Welcome Center, where there's a dumpster where they can dump that wood, so they don't violate the quarantine," says Bedford. "Enforcement's a tough one. A lot of it is education and voluntary compliance."

Some campgrounds are more restrictive than others. For example, Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore has their own firewood policy in place. They're relegating people to only bringing in firewood from vendors in the area who they have certified.

The safest route, Bedford says, is to purchase firewood near your campsite. And if you do purchase firewood in that location, don't take it home with you.

"Leave it, because you might be doing the reverse," says Bedford. You've taken a tree that was harvested locally, that died for some unknown reason, and now you're going to transport that problem back to your house, and impact you, your neighbors, and potentially, the rest of the state."

For campers who want to be certain, they might consider firewood certified by the USDA for the emerald ash borer quarantine. This wood was treated to kill any ash borer vectors.

"If it's packaged, and bears the USDA shield, and is labeled with the producer's name and phone number, it's not a regulated article and can be moved anywhere in the country," says Bedford.

For a roundup of Michigan's quarantines, rules for specific national parks, information on invasive and other pests, and links to approved firewood vendors, see the Don't Move Firewood website.

Mark Wedel is a freelance writer based in southwest Michigan. For more information, see http://www.markswedel.com

This story is a part of a statewide Invasive Species Community Impact Series. Support for this series is provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
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