That depends on the stove you have in your mind's eye. The old-fashioned, pot-belly stoves that appear in most Western movies didn't do the atmosphere any favors. But today's wood burning stoves, engineered with fuel economy in mind, are a different story.

Back in the days of cowboys and general stores, wood stoves could have been mistaken for indoor smokestacks--and that wouldn't have been too far from the truth. But modern stoves are actually one of the "greenest" sources of radiant heat available to home owners today. Here are some of the big reasons why.

Let's start with a little history. In the early 20th century, even the most efficient wood burning stoves left a lot to be desired and it wasn't hard to tell. The smoky haze these stoves produced was a telltale sign that an unknowing home owner was literally giving the torch to his heating budget. Fortunately, there has been a revolution in stove design since those days

Around 1990, there was a growing interest in alternative heating sources, caused by the rising awareness of the impact of fossil fuels (oil, coal) on the environment. In addition, the goal of energy self-sufficiency caused home owners to reevaluate wood stoves as a heating method. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) got involved, instituting demanding emissions standards to make sure that new stoves would be kind to the environment.

As new stoves were produced, engineers incorporated the EPA standards, and the "modern" wood stove came into being. Since 1990, every new wood stove is approved by the EPA, and produces a mere trickle of smoke (2-5 grams per hour) and very little ash. This amounts to a 33 percent increase in fuel efficiency over the old potbelly stoves, and a 90 percent decrease in emissions. In plain English, this means that advanced wood burning stoves burn a lot less wood and are simultaneously kinder to the planet.

At this point, a natural question would be, "Don't wood stoves put pollutants into the atmosphere just like other heating sources--gas, oil, or coal?" The answer is nuanced. When fossil fuels are extracted from the earth and consumed, they release carbon dioxide into the environment at unhealthy levels. And after the monumental costs of extracting and producing these fuels, once they're burned, they're gone for good.

As a fuel source, wood is different on several counts. Trees , like all other green plants, take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it to fiber in order to grow. When trees die, and wood decomposes, this CO2 is released back into the air. But in this case, it is a natural cycle, since all trees eventually die. The same thing is true when wood is burned. Making the wood-burning cycle sustainable is the fact that wood is a renewable source of fuel.

We started this article asking the question, "Are wood stoves good for the environment?" The answer, when you compare stoves to other heating methods, is yes. Today's stoves are fuel efficient: they produce more heat with less wood, keeping emissions to a minimum by meeting strict EPA standards. Best of all, perhaps, they don't deprive the earth of non-renewable fossil fuels.

So, call to mind that rusty, black iron stove you saw in a Western movie, a vacation lodge, or at your grandparents. Then prepare yourself for an updated picture as you explore the world of modern wood stoves. Environmentally speaking, today's stoves are very green.
Tonia Castilleja