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Front lines of bug battle, firewood checked for insects at checkpoints

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LAKE GEORGE — State Department of Environmental Conservation Officer George LaPoint directed a Chevrolet pickup to the shoulder of Northway Exit 21’s northbound off-ramp Friday afternoon.

The truck was loaded with firewood headed to a local home, and LaPoint wanted to know where the wood came from.

DEC’s ban on transporting firewood more than 50 miles has been in place since 2009 because the wood can carry a pair of tree-killing invasive insects, but the rule remained a largely word-of-mouth regulation.

But this summer, after the program saw a funding boost from U.S. Department of Agriculture, checkpoints and educational sessions about the dangers of moving firewood because of a pair of especially dangerous invasive insects are becoming the new normal.

“There’s a lot more people in compliance,” said Dan Rourke, a specialist with DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests, after chatting with the driver of the wood-laden pickup. “The word is getting out.”

A conviction of illegally transporting firewood can cost a first-time offender up to $250 in fines.

But DEC officials are focusing more on getting the word out than cracking down.

Just three tickets were issued for violating the ban at the Lake George checkpoint during its first four hours. Their wood was confiscated and will be chipped regardless of whether the insects are observed, officials said.

DEC issued many more warnings to local residents who didn’t have paperwork to prove where their wood came from.

Officials like Rourke are handing out reading material detailing the presence as far north as Albany County of the emerald ash borer, a bug that can wipe out a region’s ash tree population in a decade, and of the Asian longhorned beetle, present in the Catskills, which indiscriminately chews its way through hardwoods.

“Even people that get ticketed don’t like it, but they understand why we’re doing it,” said DEC spokesman Dave Winchell, who was watching over Friday’s checkpoint with other DEC brass.

Local providers of firewood are asked to fill out a self-certification, while people who buy it locally should obtain a receipt from the vendor as proof of the wood’s origin, officials said.

The regulation also bans the transportation of any firewood from out of state.

One local man, who was issued a warning because he was transporting local firewood without a self-certified permit, was pleased he was stopped and questioned.

“It’s good they’re actually doing something now,” said the Hudson Falls man, who only provided his first name, Todd, adding he has been in the woodworking business for years. “The ash borer is a real danger and this will only drive business to the local guys who sell wood.”

Friday’s checkpoint, with a half-dozen DEC conservation officers questioning drivers with firewood on state Route 9N, was one of two that day.

A Fulton County checkpoint was occurring at the same time as the one in Lake George.

Lake George, with its national prominence as a tourism destination, is considered by state regulators one of the most vulnerable points of entry into the region for the pair of tree-killing invasive insects.

The DEC surveyed campgrounds throughout the state, looking specifically for scheduled visitors with home ZIP codes from areas known to be infested with the Asian longhorned beetle and the emerald ash borer.

Lake George saw the highest number of visitors from places like Albany County, which is quarantined because the ash borer has been detected in the well-known purple traps lining the state’s roads.

And DEC believes with help from the traveling public, they can halt the march of the damaging insects.

“We’ve got to keep these bugs out of our forests,” said DEC Region 5 Director Bob Stegman. “We’re trying to control the things that we can.”


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