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Entrepreneurs log the unwanted urban forest

By Aaron ClarkContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 21, 2005



NEW YORK

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.

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"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."

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.

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