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Points North

Sleeping Bear Dunes swaps firewood for new, pest-free product

A sign points to the firewood vending machine at the Platte River Campground.
Patrick Shea
Interlochen Public Radio
A sign points to the firewood vending machine at the Platte River Campground.

Invasive insects can burrow inside firewood and ride along with visitors. But a new manufactured product could help keep forest pests out of the national lakeshore.

Campers at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore might be surprised to find there’s no firewood for sale this summer— at least not the logs they’re used to.

This season, a manufactured wood product called Speedy Blaze is all that’s offered at the park. At the Platte River and D.H. Day campgrounds, firewood vending machines take cash or card and can deposit the product 24/7.

Speedy Blaze comes in a heavy cardboard package with six dense, wooden bricks. They’re made from leftover wood shavings, gathered up from sawmills near Alpena. The park decided to switch to Speedy Blaze because invasive insects can live inside traditional logs.

Nicole Schafer, the forest health specialist at Sleeping Bear Dunes, says invasive pests can ride along with visitors as they bring firewood from park to park, and those pests wreak havoc on the forests along the way. This happened with the emerald ash borer in the early 2000s.

The ash borer does exactly what its name suggests. It bores into the trunk of a healthy tree, and feeds on the live tissue inside. The leaves start dying, and eventually so does the tree. The pest kills about a thousand ash trees in the national lakeshore every year.

And Schafer says the problem goes a lot deeper than just losing a certain type of tree.

“There’s a large number of organisms that depend on that specific species to live off of,” she says.

Native insects, amphibians, and other wildlife often rely on a specific kind of tree for food or shelter. Once it’s gone, that could mean the wildlife will start to die off too. Or, they could move on to another kind of tree that wasn’t expecting company, and can’t handle the increased pressure.

“Then of course, that causes a whole spiderweb of effects,” Schafer says.

It doesn’t look good for ash trees in northern Michigan. But the park has other concerns, too. There are fungal diseases like oak wilt, which wood-boring insects can spread. And then there’s pests that haven’t made it here yet: insects like the mountain pine beetle, or the spotted lantern fly.

In comes Speedy Blaze: a potential solution for keeping six-legged hitchhiker's out of Sleeping Bear’s fire rings. Those wood shavings inside the dense brick don’t make a good meal for a bug.

“The particles are too small to even harbor any type of organisms,” Schafer says. “They also don’t contain any moisture, so there’s not live tissue.”

Speedy Blaze
Speedy Blaze is made of compressed wood shavings from Alpena sawmills.

That’s why Speedy Blaze is the only wood for sale in the park right now. But a lot of campers still opt for traditional logs. Phil Akers is the Chief Ranger at the park. He says only allowing manufactured logs like Speedy Blaze isn’t out of the question.

“We could certainly do that, but It would be a tough sell right now,” Akers said. “Folks like to have that traditional firewood experience where you have that snap, crackle and pop.”

Ken and Karen Dawson made the short trip from Traverse City to camp with some friends at the Platte River Campground.

They tried out Speedy Blaze last time they camped here, but ended up adding wood to the fire. They say it burned well, but something was missing.

“You wouldn’t want to just burn it by itself, it has no ambiance,” Karen says.

Nicole Schafer says she understands why campers feel that way. But she hopes they’ll think about the big picture.

“I would say to someone who wants to transport their firewood to consider the reason why they are choosing to camp at this location,” Schafer says, adding that the shade provided by the forest canopy is one reason.

“So if their firewood brings a pest that can devastate the trees in this campground, there’s no longer going to be comfort in sitting outside during the day at your campsite.”

It might take a while for the public to warm up to manufactured firewood products like Speedy Blaze, but it could be one way to protect the park’s forests from a growing list of threats.

Patrick Shea was a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.