When David Barmon looks around at the trees in his east Portland neighborhood, he doesn’t just see green. He also sees lumber. Big, beautiful slabs of lumber that could become furniture, decking, fencing and cabinetry.
“That cone-shaped tree is a giant sequoia,” he says. “Look over there. That’s a cedar, and a doug fir.”
He points out a deodar cedar in a nearby yard.
“This one is super straight, really big around,” he says. “This is a good log.”
Barmon owns a landscaping company, but he’s also started stockpiling wood in his garage from urban trees that have to be removed for one reason or another. He built his front port out of a black locust tree that was removed from the college campus across the street.
Urban logging is still a pretty rare phenomenon, but Barmon sees potential to grow the industry and use more urban trees for wood products instead of trees from far-off forests.
“Growing trees in the city for lumber takes logging pressure off our wild forests,” he says. “There is a smaller carbon footprint when trees are cut down, taken a few miles to a mill and used in the neighborhood.”
There are numerous challenges to logging urban trees. It’s expensive and dangerous, and many of the available trees are too knotty to be used for lumber.
But Barmon also has a vision of homeowners, businesses and governments planting trees on vacant land to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change while growing sustainable lumber. If urban trees were grown with lumber in mind, he says, they could be trimmed to make the logging and milling process more efficient.
“Cities currently extract their resources from rural and wilderness areas,” he says. “We create parks and nature reserves so we have a sense of nature. All the while we destroy large tracts of land to build our houses. So I ask: Is it more appropriate to log pristine habitat where there are still
large tracks of land or should that lumber come from tree lots grown in urban
areas or semi-rural areas where we have already done immense damage?”
A surprising number of urban trees come down every year for a variety of reasons: Some get too big for the space they’re growing in and start to cause property damage; others get diseases or get blown over in wind storms; and some get removed to make way for new construction and development projects.
The U.S. Forest Service estimates that the salvaged timber generated every year from urban tree removals could produce up to 3.8 billion board feet of lumber. Michigan State University professor David Macfarlane did a regional study of 13 counties in southeast Michigan and found enough urban timber is removed to support five local sawmills and build 362 homes.
In Portland, all kinds of urban trees are removed every year: Chestnut, maple, oak, cherry, walnut, locust, cedar, hemlock, fir and redwood, to name a few.
What happens to these trees?
Years ago, Julian “Joolz” Moorcroft learned through his arborist friends that in Portland most of them get chopped into mulch or burned for firewood.
He’s now a co-owner of Urban Timberworks, a bona fide urban logging company in Portland.
Moorcroft got into urban logging, he says, because of a combination of several factors: his background in carpentry, his rock climbing hobby and his wood-heated home.
“A lot of my climbing buddies were arborists and tree guys,” he says. “They would give me free firewood. I’d look at the firewood from a carpenter’s perspective and ask: ‘What are you doing giving me oak and cherry?”
He saw an opportunity to make better use of the trees arborists remove in the city.
His plan became a reality after he met Stephen Aiguier, founder of the green building company Green Hammer.
“At the time, Green Hammer was in its infancy,” says Moorcroft. “And we thought salvaging material out of the urban forest ties in really well with the idea of being sustainable and local.”
With backing from Green Hammer, Urban Timberworks opened its own mill on southeast 4th Street and has turned urban trees into houses, conference tables, and furniture. Widmere Brothers Brewing had the company make 13,000 tap handles out of salvaged wood.
Turning a backyard tree into useful lumber is a long, costly process, said Aiguier. First they have to cut the tree and collect the log with a crane. Then, they mill it into slabs and air dry it for about a year before putting it into a kiln to dry further over two to six months, he said. It can take another year on top of that to turn it into the finished product.
In the end, he says, it can take a $20,000 investment to make something that might eventually sell for $3,000.
And removing the trees is dangerous work, says Moorcroft. It’s his job to make sure the trees his crew takes out are safe and usable, and he says he only ends up taking 40 to 50 percent of the trees he evaluates. He’s earned the title of “log whisperer” for his ability to envision “what the tree wants to become” before it even gets to the mill.
It can also be risky to mill urban logs, Moorcroft says, because 80 percent of them have some kind of object embedded in them: Screws, nails, and wires from days gone by. Embedded metal can damage saw blades and wind up costing more money in replacement parts.
To make it all work, the company only takes trees that are at least 3 feet in diameter, and it doesn’t pay for them.
“We don’t buy logs, one, to even remotely stay competitive with the wood products industry,” said Aiguier. “Two, I don’t want to create a market for people to cut down trees.”
There are plenty of trees coming down anyway, he says, ,without the added incentive of their market value.
Urban Timberworks did a rough estimate of how much timber is removed in Portland and found nearly 2 million board feet are coming down for one reason or another every year.
“There’s plenty out there,” said Aiguier. “We have more tree calls than we need.”
Deborah Lev, city nature manager, said her department has gotten requests to use the trees that come off city park lands.
“I’d say it’s really increased over the last several years,” she said.
But the city can’t just give trees away to local businesses that would mill them into a wood product.
“We have to look at the fact that we’re using taxpayer money and often it would cost more money to do that because the tree needs to be specially handled and treated differently, and there’s no reimbursement for that cost,” she said.
The city forester has asked urban logging companies to propose an alternative policy that would allow the city to work with them, said Lev.
But while the prospect of urban logging may be challenging in many respects, Moorcroft says it offers the opportunity to provide a sustainability aspect that’s pretty unique. In a perfect world, a homeowner who has to take out a hazard tree can have it milled into something that can be used indefinitely in the home.
“The tree, in essence, goes right back to the place where it once stood and continues to live not as a tree but as something else that stays in the family,” he says. “That is sustainability.”