Meanwhile, many of the forests in Vermont, especially young woodlands that are growing in abandoned fields, have become heavily infested with introduced plants such as glossy buckthorn and common buckthorn. These invasive plants, which I've talked about before and even made a little video game about, have few or no natural predators. For this reason it forms dense thickets in open areas and stops trees like maples from returning to these areas. While the long term effects are uncertain, at the current time we are seeing the formation of thickets of buckthorn with little other plant life. Removing buckthorn has been shown to allow tree saplings to grow, but removal can be expensive and money is in short supply right now. There is a movement to reduce the numbers of invasive species by eating them, but buckthorn isn't edible. Even the beavers don't seem to like it. Most landowners and land managers don't like it either, but can't afford to remove it themselves.
While testing out a citizen science iPhone app called What's Invasive, I mapped some of the buckthorn in the Champlain Valley area. This map is by no means complete, and simply represents places I've seen buckthorn when testing the app. Go to the main website linked above and select the 'Champlain Valley of Vermont' park for more info and photos.
What do invasive plants have to do with keeping people warm? Potentially a lot! Buckthorn wood is fairly hard, but as a shrub or small tree is not useful as a commercial timber wood. I don't see any reason why we can't burn it, though. The larger limbs and trunks could be burned directly, in most cases without having to split them. The smaller stems could be useful too, but tossing handfuls of twigs into a woodstove is not a realistic option. One friend suggested that perhaps the twigs could be bundled together like straw was in Laura Ingalls Wilder's book The Long Winter. Another friend mentioned that smaller twigs could possibly be converted to wood pellet fuel - much less labor intensive and perhaps more realistic, though it requires processing. I'm not all that familiar with the process of making wood pellets though, and the site above claims that including bark in wood pellets causes them to be of lower quality. Removing bark from twigs is definitely not realistic. I'm not also sure if it would be possible for a small grassroots project would be able to manufacture these pellets.
One thing that is important to remember is that our goal would not be to initiate sustainable long term removal of buckthorn. Our goal would be to find a short-term solution to solve an ecological and economic problem while moving on to something better in the long term. If we can get a handle on buckthorn, our next task is to transition into longer-term sustainable forestry, which would mean transitioning to using sustainably-harvested products of healthy forests in the places where we remove buckthorn. After all, native hardwood trees DO make better firewood than buckthorn, and restoring a more natural ecosystem as a working landscape is a better prospect in the long run.
So, here's where YOU come in. I haven't done extensive research on this idea, and I thought it would make sense to ask people in Vermont (and other cold areas of eastern North America) what they think. How many of you use a wood stove as a major part of your winter heating, or would be able to do so? What is the smallest diameter 'log' that is feasible to use in a wood stove? Can wood stoves be designed to burn smaller-diameter wood more efficiently? Do any of you heat with wood pellets? If so, where do you get them from? Are there local people making wood pellets, or do they require a difficult process to create and require a huge factory? If you're a landowner or land manager, would you 'donate' your unwanted buckthorn to keep people warm? Can a snowmobile be used to tow wood out of the forest during times when the ground is frozen? I'd love to start a discussion about this if anyone is interested or has ideas. Please leave comments here or visit the Slow Water Movement Facebook page or Google+ page and share your thoughts! If the idea gathers any interest at all, I may try to push it along further - it may be too late for this winter, but winter is a great time to harvest wood to be used next year.