Each spring for almost 20 years, Tony Colarich has gathered with a few of his buddies in Ely, Minn., to boil the sap they collect from about 50 silver maple trees in the city blocks surrounding their houses. They enjoy the camaraderie of their labor-intensive hobby and have fun giving maple syrup to friends and family.

But not this year. When Colarich stepped outside last month, he saw someone else’s big blue sap-collecting bags already hanging on maple trees throughout his North Woods town.

“I don’t want this to come across as a big issue,” said 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.”

While Ely is surrounded by woods, there aren’t a lot of maple trees mixed into the forest nearby, Novak explained. Besides, those maples are much more difficult to reach, and when the sap is running fast it requires at least one trip a day to empty the bags.

People in Ely had been speculating this spring that out-of-towners had tapped the trees for a commercial operation. But who?

Eventually, Derek Brekke, who lives about a mile and a half outside town, came into City Hall to explain.

Brekke, his wife and another couple had been tapping trees together for a few years using their grandparents’ equipment, Brekke said. They are trying to pass the tradition on to their young children, he said, and they use the syrup themselves. His wife is a chef and substitutes it for brown and white sugar.

They usually tap in the woods, Brekke said, but their curiosity was piqued last year when they saw people tap trees in town. After one tapper explained that it was a first-come, first-served situation, Brekke and his friend decided to take advantage, too.

“It makes it easier to get the kids out in town rather than trouncing through 2 feet of snow,” Brekke said. So the two families tapped some Ely city trees last year along with their taps in the woods, drilling into 40-50 trees total.

This year, they expanded their syrup operation to 80-90 trees, all of them in town. They noticed a few of the trees they tapped have been tapped again. “It’s not our trees and it’s not their trees so we figured we’d just go with it,” Brekke said.

They were respectful of residents who popped out of their houses and asked them not to tap nearby trees, Brekke said. He’s disappointed now that people have complained.

“There’s plenty more maples to be tapped,” he said. “If you start whining about it ... they’re not going to allow it anymore.”

A labor of love

Making maple syrup is a growing hobby in Minnesota and elsewhere. Membership has surged in the Minnesota Maple Syrup Producers Association in the past decade, and some producers say more people are making their own syrup now as part of the movement to eat healthy and local.

But it’s not for the faint of heart — it generally takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. Collecting so much sap requires many trips to the trees and a lot of time and energy for boiling. The amount of sap collected per tree can vary greatly, depending on the weather. Sap runs best during spells of warm days and freezing nights, but once a tree’s buds start to break, the sap turns bitter and the syrup season is over.

The Minnesota DNR doesn’t allow tapping in state parks, but it does issue permits for collecting sap in state forests. It’s done to prevent over-tapping in specific areas and to keep the forest and habitat sustainable, explained Kim Pleticha, communications coordinator for the forestry division.

Some cities, such as St. Paul, Duluth and Minneapolis, don’t allow tapping of city trees at all.

“This issue pops up every February/March,” wrote Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board spokeswoman Dawn Sommers. “Drilling a hole in boulevard or park trees is an unnecessary injury that is harmful to trees that are often already growing in less than ideal conditions.”

The city of Hutchinson outlawed sap tapping last year as a preventive measure after seeing people tap trees on private property in town, said Public Works Manager John Olson.

“We thought, ‘Well, now that we’ve seen it we better have a game plan in place,’ ” Olson said. “It’s just easier for us to say, ‘No thanks.’ You treat everybody the same that way.”

Other cities are more forgiving. In the northern Minnesota city of Virginia, Mayor Larry Cuffe said he knows of no ordinance against tapping trees — but there aren’t many maple trees on city property anyway, so syruping isn’t a big draw.

In Ely, the city’s maples are aging; workers recently cut down a bunch of rotting ones. But those trees will be replaced, and the issue isn’t likely to run dry, leaders know.

The city’s Tree Board is recommending no tapping on new trees, saying that although tapping may not hurt sugar maples in a forest, the city’s silver maples are stressed as they grow in a boulevard.

Colarich said his group of syrup makers has been dwindling — a few have passed away and one member is now 91 years old.

“We’re winding it down,” Colarich said. “Between the city cutting trees ... and between somebody else taking all the available trees in town, there’s nothing left anyhow.”

Brekke said he’s disappointed with the scuffle that the tree tapping has caused.

“It’s just about learning good family values and how to use the resources we’re given,” he said. “We’re going to head back out to the woods next year and just tough it out.”