Felled City Trees Could Grow a New Lumber Economy
This story has been edited to clarify the city of Baltimore's relationship with the Baltimore Wood Project.
SEATTLE — When a tree falls in the city, does it make a table? Or a guitar or a cabinet?
It’s a question that’s increasingly being asked by state and city leaders, arborists, tree care companies and woodworkers. A growing coalition aims to turn urban wood into a valuable resource, rather than a waste product that is chipped up and sent to landfills.
“Ten to 15 years ago, nobody knew what urban wood was,” said Paul Hickman, founder and CEO of Urban Ashes, a Michigan-based consulting company that helps cities create wood recycling programs. “Cities are starting to understand and accept the value in this.”
Hickman also heads the Michigan chapter of the Urban Wood Network, a group of industry leaders and local officials who work to coordinate recycling efforts. Advocates say sustainability is the primary driver of promoting trees’ reuse, but cities and tree companies can save money by avoiding disposal fees at landfills. Some cities have cut costs by using salvaged wood in municipal construction projects. And local businesses have sprung up all over the country to make use of urban lumber.
One such company is Urban Hardwoods, a Seattle-based, high-end furniture maker that sources all its wood from salvaged trees within 15 miles of its shop.
“They're all trees that were being cut down anyway, mostly due to disease, storm damage and development,” said Dave Hunzicker, the company’s operations manager. “It's not our goal to cut trees down and turn them into furniture. It's our goal to salvage trees that are already being cut down and turn them into furniture.”
Urban Hardwoods acquires logs from tree service companies and employs 11 workers who operate its sawmill, warehouse, kiln and workshop. On a recent Monday visit, piles of large logs sat at the company’s sawmill, waiting to be cut. Its massive warehouse was stacked high with slabs of lumber, which dry for three years before they’re processed. And its shop was full of workers turning those slabs into uniquely shaped tables, desks and benches.
While most city wood businesses are small artisans, backers believe the industry has vast untapped potential. A 2019 study found that urban tree removals could produce about 7 billion board feet of wood each year, roughly half of which has the potential to be turned into lumber. That’s roughly 10% of the quantity produced in traditional timber harvests.
“There's a huge volume of urban wood out there to be recycled, and historically, there haven't been processes in place to use that wood efficiently and economically,” said Kari Divine, the Urban Wood Network’s executive director. “Why would you put a valuable resource in a landfill?”
Joe Lehnen, Urban Wood Program coordinator with the Virginia Department of Forestry, said local businesses see a huge benefit when cities decide to recycle their wood.
“Local entrepreneurs are growing and creating new businesses through the availability of this wood,” he said. “Every time I go to an urban wood business, they are slammed with orders.”
Still, many challenges remain. Urban trees come in a wide variety of species and sizes, and tree removals don’t take place on a predictable schedule. Without well-established supply chains, would-be producers are left to navigate a confusing patchwork to get the wood they need. In many cases, it’s still more cost-effective to buy traditionally harvested lumber than to procure and process “free” urban trees on a piecemeal basis.
Backers hope that growing coordination through programs like the Urban Wood Network will help increase both supply and demand.
“We’re slowly but surely gaining recognition,” said Scott Altenhoff, who heads the Urban and Community Forestry Assistance Program at the Oregon Department of Forestry. “We’re trying to find ways to drive economic livelihood by putting these precious resources to their highest use.”
Some of the earliest efforts to use urban wood systemically started in the Midwest in the early 2000s, as the invasive emerald ash borer killed millions of ash trees. Hickman and others began to organize a network of mills to use the doomed trees as they were taken down.
Similar efforts have popped up across the country, and several of them have joined to form the Urban Wood Network. As climate change and other pests threaten many more tree species, backers say their early success stories show the model can scale up.
In Harrisonburg, Virginia, city leaders started an urban wood utilization program in 2018 with support from Lehnen’s agency. Lumber has been used for conference tables in city buildings, as well as for park benches and planter boxes. Local companies and woodworkers also have bought wood from the city.
“We had a dump site on city property and burned the brush pile every year, and it just drove me crazy,” said Jeremy Harold, the city’s green space manager. “Now, we’re getting the wood back into our community.”
Baltimore's Recreation and Parks Department salvages wood from city trees and redirects it to Camp Small, a city-run processing facility, where it’s used in city construction or sold to residents.
“They're bringing that material in; the city owns it, sells it and is getting revenue,” said Mike Galvin, commercial consulting arborist with the tree care company SavATree. Galvin also served as a consultant on the Baltimore Wood Project, a U.S. Forest Service-led effort to promote urban wood reclamation that highlighted the city's work.
Shaun Preston, Camp Small’s recycling coordinator, said the project has provided 65,000 board-feet of lumber for city construction, including wellness centers, fishing piers and pedestrian bridges. With plans to scale up its workforce and equipment, it’s targeting $350,000 in annual revenue from sales of its products to the public, which will be reinvested into the city’s forestry efforts.
“The money that comes out of the end use of the trees goes into planting new trees,” he said. “There’s great potential for growth, and we could easily double what we’re doing.”
Many tree care companies are finding that they’re better off working with urban wood partners than dumping chips at a landfill.
“When I started my career, everything went to the landfill,” said Andy Trotter, vice president of field operations with West Coast Arborists, which serves roughly 350 cities in California and Arizona. “We have about 800 tons of material that’s coming out every day, and we’re seeing more and more companies come to play.”
One of those companies is Taylor Guitars, which recently began using Shamel ash and red ironbark eucalyptus supplied by West Coast Arborists in some of its guitars.
“Buying wood internationally from traditional suppliers is going to be increasingly complicated in the years to come,” said Scott Paul, the company’s director of natural resource sustainability. “If urban wood can provide the quality that meets our standards, that is a resource that's not being chipped and mulched and burned.”
West Coast Arborists also has successfully pushed several cities to adopt ordinances requiring that city trees be recycled for their “highest use.” The recycling policies encourage cities to use urban wood when possible for a city project, and to plant replacement trees that have valuable “end-of-life uses.”
Not all urban trees can be turned into finished wood products. Some species, as well as small-diameter trees and limbs, can’t be made into lumber. Industry leaders are working to find uses for those trees. Some trees, such as cottonwoods, can be made into pallets. Others may fuel the growing biochar industry. Biochar, a charcoal-like substance, is made by heating organic material without oxygen. It sequesters carbon and can be used to improve soils.
“There's a lot of limbs and non-merchantable sized wood that still needs to have an end use,” said Margaret Miller, air quality planner and forester with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. “We’re finding ways to put a value on some of those things that maybe historically didn't have the same market value.”
Miller is researching emissions with the goal of changing regulations, which currently make it easier to burn slash piles out in the open than to process it into biochar. Meanwhile, many cities have begun turning less-marketable wood into firewood or compost. While those uses don’t have the same economic or carbon-storage benefits as lumber, they’re still a better option than the landfill.