Petersham and Athol wood banks help defray heating costs

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In an effort to help neighbors in need and make use of an abundant natural resource, Petersham started the process of opening a community wood bank three years ago, with neighboring Athol following a year later. Now in their third and second years, respectively, the banks continue to grow.
 
“The program is gaining popularity as word spreads,” said Athol Tree Warden Travis Knechtel. “We’re having more people donate or agree to give wood, and a bigger demand for vouchers this year.”
 
Both towns use a voucher system to hand out wood to community members in need, half a cord at a time. Wood is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Residents who need assistance to get through a difficult period can pick up a voucher from the board of selectmen’s office in their respective town.
 
Town maintenance crews cut and collect wood year-round as part of routine maintenance of public land and rights of way. Wood collected by workers that is not claimed by property owners or abutters can languish at transfer stations and in DPW yards.
 
“The pile [of trees] we had in our holding yard was getting bigger and bigger while at the same time heating costs started going through the roof,” said Petersham Tree Warden Melissa LeVangie. “There had to be a better way.”
 
LeVangie did some research on wood banks, a concept that is more common in other New England states, and connected with Sean Mahoney, outreach service forester with the Department of Conservation and Recreation. (DCR recently received a small state grant to explore the community wood bank concept, though Athol and Petersham did not receive any state funding.)
 
“Wood banks are a great way to use the natural resource, and connect community members with their forests,” Mahoney said, who added that the banks provide a comfortable way for people to ask for help.
 
“It was difficult to get going,” LeVangie said, “but now when people hear about it, it’s a no brainer.”
 
In addition to creating a policy to bring to the board of selectmen for approval, one of the biggest issues to overcome in creating a wood bank is limited funds, she said, especially when it comes to manpower and the equipment required to split the wood for household burning.
 
The wood banks are largely volunteer-based. Members of the community come out on designated volunteer days to help cut and stack the wood. Knechtel said that people who have used vouchers often come to the volunteer day.
 
“It’s a nice way for the community to come together and give back to the people in need,” Knechtel said.
 
The Department of Conservation and Recreation has provided equipment assistance and expertise to the wood banks, bringing machinery, tools and trained staff to volunteer cutting days, as well as technical assistance to communities who are interested in starting a program.
 
The majority of wood stock comes from town maintenance, but the banks also accept donations, which must come from within the town and meet strict guidelines, both to prevent the spread of invasive tree-killing insects and to meet equipment limitations. Both LeVangie and Knechtel work with utility maintenance crews and contractors to have some of that wood brought in as well.
 
The first year for both towns was slow to get up and running, since wood can take up to two years to season enough for burning. But both wood banks have seen their stock grow since their initial start. Petersham stocked eight cords in their first year, followed by 20 in their second.
 
“With a small amount of homework in the beginning, it runs itself because it is something that people can get behind,” LeVangie said.