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Firewood sellers blame Fort Drum biomass plant for lumber shortage

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Firewood sellers say they believe a severe timber shortage this winter has been caused partly by loggers supplying wood chips to the Fort Drum biomass facility. But officials at ReEnergy say restrictions on the wood used there shouldn’t affect the firewood supply.

ReEnergy LLC’s biomass facility on Fort Drum, which opened in June, does business with about 25 loggers across Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence, Oswego, Oneida and Onondaga counties who supply wood chips to its 60-megawatt plant, said John R. Howe, ReEnergy’s north country wood procurement manager. In addition, about 10 loggers supply wood chips to ReEnergy’s Lyonsdale plant in Lyons Falls.

Mr. Howe said those clients do not use full logs to produce wood chips. He said they use only secondary wood, including limbs, boughs and other forest residue that otherwise would be discarded.

A requirement from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority stipulates that loggers may not use logs that are 5 inches or more in diameter as biomass fuel, he said. Logs of that size typically are sold to sawmills or to paper manufacturers that produce pulp. Loggers then use the remaining scrap wood from trees to produce wood chips used at the Black River facility.

Some firewood sellers, though, contend a number of loggers are under pressure to convert firewood logs into wood chips to meet annual quotas established by contracts with ReEnergy. They say that loggers tend to treat ReEnergy as a preferred business partner as a consequence, and that prices for logs have risen sharply because of high demand.

Mr. Howe said about 10 loggers have signed five-year contracts to lease chippers from ReEnergy. They’re required to meet a 40-week production quota each year, according to the contracts. A portion of proceeds from each ton delivered to the plant goes toward the purchase of the leased wood chippers, which are paid off in full after five years. Machines are priced between $250,000 and $600,000. To participate, loggers are obliged to provide anywhere from $42,000 to $120,000 worth of wood chips each year.

ReEnergy has the authority to cancel contracts with loggers and force them to return wood chippers if they fail to meet annual production quotas, Mr. Howe said. But he said he does not believe the quotas cause undue pressure for loggers to use firewood logs, rather than other tree wood, to produce wood chips.

“None of the loggers I deal with are putting logs through a chipper — that would be foolish on their part,” Mr. Howe said. “And if they had to do that to meet their annual allowance, we’d change their requirement.”

Mill operators beg to differ.

Burrville Power Equipment, which sells firewood throughout the year at its Route 12 location, has a major problem this season. Owner Thomas P. Maguire said the wood supply at the business is down about 75 percent from last year because of the shortage.

He blamed the shortage on ReEnergy.

“Normally I would have 2,000 cords of wood this time of year, but right now I only have 500,” said Mr. Maguire, who added that firewood demand has surged in December and January because of the extremely cold weather. “I’m going to guess we’ve sold about 20 percent more chopped firewood than normal.”

Customers who previously bought timber from loggers to split on their own are now deciding to buy chopped firewood instead, Mr. Maguire said, because they have faced an extended wait for delivery.

“Normally, when homeowners call loggers for wood, they can get it in two to three weeks,” he said. “But they’re not getting it for two to three months this season.”

Town of LeRay resident Paul R. Slater, who heats his home on County Route 50 with a wood stove during the winter, expects to see the availability of firewood and scrap wood decrease because of the ReEnergy plant.

“ReEnergy has claimed they use just the tops of trees that no one wants, but that’s exactly what people like me use,” Mr. Slater said. “We go into the woods and take that stuff up, and right down to the size of a silver dollar we burn it. A lot of guys like me are wood pickers, and I know guys who go to the wood dumps in towns after storms and will go cut it up. You will see people lose those avenues with more competition, and it’s raising the price of wood with the extra demand.”

In the aftermath of the ice storm in late December, highway officials from Jefferson County, villages and towns met to talk about having ReEnergy get involved in using fallen tree limbs and other debris as fuel for its plant.

Philip A. Clement, owner of Phil’s Firewood and Burrville Sawmill in Watertown, said he has lost three logging clients during the past year who are now supplying wood chips to ReEnergy. The sawmill buys timber to make pallets sold to local manufacturers, including New York Air Brake and Knowlton Technologies. Though the amount of firewood sold to homeowners has tripled this season due to extremely cold weather, he said, restocking that wood has been a challenge.

“I could show you right now loggers who are grinding whole trees, not just the tops like they claim, and that’s caused a lot of problems,” he said. “These loggers make agreement with ReEnergy, and when they rent these wood chippers, they have to meet a quota.”

To illustrate that problem, Mr. Clement offered a hypothetical example. He said a logging company might need to deliver 20 tractor-trailer loads during a week to ReEnergy to meet its production quota, while five loads might be scheduled to be delivered to his sawmill the same week.

“If they’re running short, they’ll bring all the loads to ReEnergy,” he said. “It drives my prices up, so I have to go out and find loggers farther away to do business with. One logger I used to do business with sold his truck and now only does wood chips.”

Last year, the price per tractor-trailer load of logs bought by Mr. Clement ranged from $1,200 to $1,300. It’s ranged from $1,500 to $2,000 this year. To compensate for that increase, the price per cord of firewood has been increased from $65 to $70.

To make matters more difficult for sawmills, the price of diesel fuel needed to operate machinery has climbed this winter, Mr. Clement said. At the General Store on Bradley Street, the price per gallon rose from $4.09 on Jan. 23 to $4.55 on Thursday.

But unlike others, Mr. Clement doesn’t believe the business climate for firewood sellers will worsen much more than it has this season.

“Demand should still be high, because prices for fuel oil and propane has gone up while firewood hasn’t gone up as much,” he said.

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