Entrepreneurs log the unwanted urban forest

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Donald "Stubby" Warmbold remembers the day he saw a 100-year-old oak tree cut into 12-inch lengths of firewood. A new homeowner in suburban Mercer County, N.J., wanted to expand a driveway, so the tree had to go.

"It was a beautiful, beautiful red oak," says Mr. Warmbold, who had recently lost a lucrative telephone polemaking business because new environmental laws had reduced his lumber supply.

"That's a waste," he recalls thinking. "That's when the little light bulb went on."

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Warmbold realized the tree could have been put to better use. Such high-quality wood could be turned into furniture or flooring or, at the very least, park benches.

Traditionally, urban trees chopped down because of disease, age, or development have been sent to the dump. But increasingly, entrepreneurs and small businesses are identifying ways to more constructively use the estimated 3.8 billion board feet of timber - about 25 percent of the annual hardwood lumber production in the United States every year - that is removed from cities and suburbs annually. That's roughly enough wood to build about 275,000 new homes, and only a small fraction is now recycled.

More arborists and city officials are using the timber from these trees for firewood or wood chips. Warmbold and a handful of others are trying to take that a step further, turning unwanted oaks, pines, and ash trees into flooring, cabinetry, custom molding, and high-end furniture.

"We're about repairing things and not throwing them away," Warmbold says.

Warmbold and his wife, Maria, started Citilogs, six years ago in Pittstown, N.J. They salvage trees from urban parks and suburban homes and have clients all along the East Coast and in Chicago.

Warmbold typically hauls away trees that have fallen down due to weather or disease for clients who want them made into customized tables, desks, cabinetry, or other woodworks. After removing them, he usually ships the wood to Amish craftsmen in Pennsylvania, who create custom pieces made with nontoxic glues and finishes. Sometimes he turns the trees into lumber his clients will use in construction projects. He charges for overseeing the removal of trees, the milling, and furniture production, which he subcontracts to the Amish craftsmen.

Though his fees vary widely, a table typically costs about $1,500, he says, and that covers all expenses.

Warmbold was asked by Willow School, a private primary school in Gladstone, N.J., to remove about a dozen ash trees and turn them into chairs, desks, and tables. While the new school was being constructed, Warmbold organized the tree removal and furniture production. The furniture was ready a few months later, when the school's doors opened.

Recycling city trees slated to be chopped down remains a mostly unregulated cottage industry, where business is generated primarily through word of mouth and a few websites.

"When we try to sell the idea to policymakers, that's when we hit the wall," says Stephen Bratkovich, a forest products specialist with the USDA Forest Service.

Dr. Bratkovich is trying to encourage more municipalities to recycle unwanted timber and perhaps turn it into park benches, stakes for new trees, or school desks.

He acknowledges that two of the biggest problems is a lack of information and too few timber recycling programs.

Some cities don't allow businesses like Citilogs to bid on municipal projects because, by law, they must have a competing bid from another company, Bratkovich says. There aren't enough timber recycling companies out there to get that second bid.

For homeowners, the costs of disposing of a tree can be exorbitant. Depending on the size and weight of a tree, arborists may charge between $500 and $1,500 to cart away what is often useable, or even high-quality wood.

Urban Hardwoods, a high-end furniture design company based in Seattle, often saves homeowners disposal and cutting costs if they can salvage long vertical sections of a large tree.

The company reclaims between 150 and 200 trees a year from the Seattle area, mostly from independent arborists and property owners who don't want them.

The company was founded in 2002 by Jim Newsom, a self-taught woodworker and master craftsman who began making furniture out of driftwood in the late 1990s.

The company employs two designers and makes a wide range of commercial and residential furniture. The key to the company's success, says designer John Wells, lies in the type of wood they can recover.

"The beauty of the material is really what sells the product," says Mr. Wells.

Most urban trees are larger, older, and of better quality than younger, rurally logged trees, which are often cut down when they are just six years old, he says.

The trees that Urban Hardwoods collects are usually several decades old and include Douglas firs, bigleaf maples, madrona, and oak trees. They make striking tabletops, mantelpieces, and beds that sell for thousands of dollars in upscale showrooms across the country.

"That's our business advantage right there," Wells says. "The scale of the trees that we get is what determines their value - the scale and the quality of the grain of the wood."

Another company in Michigan has also found a way to successfully recycle unwanted timber.

Brothers Dan and Charlie LaMont are helping nearly a dozen counties dispose of ash trees that are being cut down by the millions in an attempt to stop a growing infestation of an exotic beetle from Asia. The brothers are taking the rough logs, milling them, and selling them primarily as railroad ties.

Citilogs's business is driven by a niche market, a savvy "green" marketing plan, and Warmbold's forestry and resource expertise. Lately he has also been focusing on restoration projects at historical sites, saving wood flooring or furnishings inside buildings.

"Some people say what we're doing is revolutionary. Well it isn't, it's just common sense," Warmbold says. "If a guy's got logs, if he's got to get rid of them, why not use them?"

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