Ely maple sap spat may stop street taps

PHOTO: Jim Sorbie, Flickr CC

This year the city of Ely, Minnesota, forwent its traditional April Fools joke because Easter landed on the same day. Whether tourism officials wanted to avoid confusing the Resurrection with a practical joke or simply wanted to gorge themselves on deviled eggs, we’ll never know.

But in keeping with the way of the world these days, if you wait long enough the real world will happily provide outlandish satire in the form of actual events.

Case it point, last week’s dustup over Ely’s city-owned silver maple trees. For decades, the trees — located throughout this Vermilion Iron Range city — served as a small scale source of maple sap for a group of local syrupers. However, this year, a larger operation showed up early and tapped every tree. Pam Louwagie of the Star Tribune, reacting to local media, reported on the story.

Dig the Minnesota rage in this first quote:

“I don’t want this to come across as a big issue,” said [longtime maple tapper Tony] Colarich, 69. “It’s a bummer … of course, you know, I’m upset and stuff.”

The sudden emergence of competition to tap Ely’s plethora of city-owned maple trees now has local leaders reconsidering whether to allow anyone to sip the sap. They can look to a wide spectrum of tree-tapping policies by state and local governments, with some banning it altogether and others issuing permits to keep a lid on the practice. A public hearing on the sticky issue is set for this month in Ely.

“We’ve never had to deal with it before,” Mayor Chuck Novak said, noting that a small group of maple syrup makers in the city, which he dubs the “maple syrup gang,” had been collecting the sap without incident. “But this year the blue bags showed up with the metal hangers on just about every tree. It was disturbing to those who were used to having their annual ritual.”

Turns out two local families who use syrup instead of sugar in recipes did most of the tapping. Lacking any rules or regulations, there was nothing stopping them from doing so.

Ely, of course, remains surrounded by vast forests. However, maples are harder to find amid the pines. That puts a premium on the town maples.

We’ll see what the city decides to do. As Louwagie writes, many Minnesota cities bar maple tapping in town to avoid damaging the trees in disputes like these. The state allows some tapping on public land, but only when licensed.

Meantime, it could be a tough year for syrupers in Northern Minnesota. The unseasonably cold temperatures slowed the flow of sap. When the temperatures do rise, chances are the flow won’t last long.

One must slowly boil about ten gallons of maple sap to produce two quarters of maple syrup. It’s an arduous but delicious tradition dating back thousands of years in this region. All human inhabitants of this part of the world learned this skill from earlier inhabitants. Presumably, someone a long time ago licked a maple tree and found that it was sweet.


  1. David Gray says

    We’ve had a decent year so far for syrup (we’re using our own trees). The trees in town are public property and the rule has been first come, first serve. There aren’t squatter’s rights. If it is a source of conflict just issue permits for trees or something on that order.

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