LEBANON, N.H. (AP) – Rising energy prices are driving up demand for cord wood and creating a shortage in some areas of northern New England.

Firewood sellers say they can’t keep up.

“Right now I’m refusing work,” said Bob Baker. “I had one customer who wanted 14 cords of tree-length wood. I said, ‘Good luck.’ “

Baker, a retiree from Ryegate, Vt., has been running a small-scale firewood operation for six years on his land.

He estimates he’s running about 30 cords behind.

In Orford, N.H., Stacey Thomson worries about having to turn away new customers.

Karl Nott of Hartford, Vt., eagerly awaits his next shipment of felled trees.

Dealers and timber industry experts attribute the firewood shortage partly to competition.

Paper mills in Maine and Quebec are offering around $180 a cord for pulp logs that make good kindling, according to Stephen Long of Corinth, Vt., co-founder and coeditor of Northern Woodlands magazine.

That makes it tougher for local vendors to find wholesale supplies, he says.

Woodcutters also say the demand is coming at what normally is a slower time of year for production and sales.

“Peak buying is normally in March and April, and this year the panic started in June,” said Sarah Smith, a forest industry specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. “This is a different dynamic, and (sellers) weren’t ready. They have a sort of rhythm, and this year it just got blown out of the water.”

Smith predicted that the unseasonable run would eventually settle down over the summer, but with fuel oil remaining above $4 a gallon, local vendors aren’t expecting orders to ebb.

Last week, Vermont expanded a fuel assistance program called “Wood Warms,” which encourages wood use through cut-your-own initiatives on public lands and firewood vouchers for low- and moderate-income households.

Maine’s ongoing program to sell firewood to permit holders who cut and remove the wood from public lands is seeing a spike in popularity this year, the Department of Conservation said. At this time in 2007, the department had sold 11 permits for 86 cords of firewood. To date this year, it’s sold 50 permits for 353 cords of firewood. Additional sales are expected in the coming weeks, the department said.

Anticipated high fuel prices are a concern all over northern New England.

“There’s no question this is going to be a hard winter for people because of the demand,” said Stacey Thomson, who runs Thomson Timber Harvesting and Trucking in Orford. “It’s not even a question of how much it costs for wood pellets or firewood, so much as if they’re even available.”

Canaan resident Pete Stark, who heats his home exclusively with wood, said he’s noticed a steady decline in the availability of firewood for several years. The Starks said they invested thousands in truckloads of wood three years ago, locking in a rate of about $100 per cord.

A cord of dry wood, which equals 128 cubic feet, now costs nearly twice that.

Andrew Friedland, chairman of the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth College, said heating with wood is cheaper at today’s prices even at $240 per cord. At that price, wood costs about $25 per million BTUs produced, compared with $43 for the same BTUs with electricity (at 15 cents per kilowatt hour) and $50 with fuel oil (at $4.50 per gallon).

Liz Nickerson of Woodstock believes she’d save money at $300 per cord. Her spacious old home used 1,900 gallons of heating oil last winter. At that point, Nickerson said she averaged one fire in their wood stove a week.

“It was more just for the beauty of it and the atmosphere,” she said. “But this year I’m going to be much more diligent.”

At West Lebanon’s Woodstock Soapstone Co., high-efficiency wood stoves are selling fast, and employees there said they are bracing for a new flood of calls once consumers receive their first oil bills this fall.

Company President Tom Morrissey said he recently sent a newsletter warning stove customers to start looking for wood, to avoid being left in the cold.

“I think people who wait until September or October are going to have an unpleasant surprise,” he said.

Depending on the wood and the size and energy efficiency of the space it is heating, homeowners estimate it can take as little as three cords of wood to heat a house through the winter with no supplemental source.

The Starks said they use about five cords for their modest sized home.

Forest land in New Hampshire and Vermont is expanding and the current demand for firewood likely won’t lead to unsustainable cutting, said Friedland.

“If you had a primary source of heat and you were burning one cord of wood a winter, it certainly would be advisable for a person like that to spend a little time and up that to two cords,” Friedland said. “That, I think, is defensible from an economic standpoint and also an environmental standpoint.”

Angelica Jackson dispenses heating fuel assistance to low-income residents through the nonprofit Tri-County Community Action Program. She said burning more wood sounds good in theory but she has had no luck finding a firewood source for her clients this year.

“They just don’t have enough,” she said.

Information from: Lebanon Valley News, http://www.vnews.com

AP-ES-08-03-08 1341EDT

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