Harvesting urban timber

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

I know that this sounds a little on the drastic side but fact is that there are times where urban trees have to be felled or have to have a real serious haircut, be it street trees, those in parks, or those on private properties.

Regardless whether those jobs are undertaken by council or private tree surgeons in general the wood from those trees ends up in landfill and the private tree surgeons doing work in people's gardens, and also the contractors to the local authorities, often even have to pay to dump the wood.

Having recently come across a venture from Vancouver, Canada (Vancouver Urban Timberworks) and also one from Wisconsin where in both cases bespoke wood crafts businesses work with predominately urban lumber and, in the case of the Vancouver venture also with reclaimed wood, and in the case of the Wisconsin venture with lumber from their own woods, it is becoming obvious that there is a place for those, especially if not too large, in almost all urban areas around the globe.

It is true that not all the lumber from such urban trees may be of use for the making of furniture or even treen goods but then, at least, it should become something else, even if it is just firewood or other kind of biomass or even just wood chips for use in various ways, rather than going to the landfill to decay and release the carbon dioxide that the tree locked up during its lifetime and, in addition, methane into the atmosphere. The latter a greenhouse gar reckoned to be 20 to 40 times more dangerous even than CO2.

In the wild trees are getting harder to come by, and thus lumber for the making of various things, because too many of our woodlands are not properly managed and have not been for many decades.

Much of our wood nowadays – in Britain and elsewhere – and wooden products come from abroad with – despite the so-called FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification, which more often then not, I am afraid, is not worth the paper it is written upon – dubious backgrounds and origins. Often the lumber that is shipped and especially the lumber from which those products from places such as China, Vietnam and such places, are made comes from illegal logging operations.

We can change all this with the choices that we make as to where and how we buy wood products. We simply need to be smarter shoppers and it is our actual purchases of stuff that drives the world economy and the politics of the Planet. Thus the choices that we make as to what we buy and where does make a difference in the end.

There is a major effort under way in many places today, and where it is not maybe we could and should start it, to promote the use of Urban Wood that is until now just wasted.

The timber industry historically would not take city trees due to the risk of metal in the logs that could damage their expensive sawmill blades and also and especially the scattered smaller trees with often poor form compared to a forest grown tree were not profitable to process.

Industrial logging in the cities of the USA has begun to peak with the spread of the emerald ash borer and other diseases but most of the billions of board feet every year that comes from such operations is chipped up, split for firewood, or thrown in the landfill. And the same is the case in Britain and in the urban and suburban areas other European countries.

We import wood from all around to globe to make products, or we import products made abroad that may have dubious origins while the lumber that is cut locally, including and especially in urban and suburban areas, is, generally, destined for the landfill.

Street trees that have to be felled for this or that reason, or those from people's yards, are seen as having no value all too often and thus are just simply treated as “green waste” and, if not used for firewood or being chipped up or mulched into compost they are simply cut up and dumped in the landfills. This should not be acceptable as many of those trees, and even their smaller pieces, can all be used and made into objects for use and for beauty.

It is time to think of urban and suburban trees, including those in parks and open spaces, when they have to be felled, and the woodlands in many parks need proper woodland management anyway, as a resource and not as waste, not even as “green waste” and make use of them in small local enterprises.

Not only is this going to keep this urban wood out of the waste stream but it will also give employment, whether self-employed individuals, so-operatives or small businesses, to local people and will result in locally-made wood products. Thus it will be possible to make good money from per 'worthless' tree, and keep the money in the local economy.

Promoting the use of locally-grown and manufactured wood products from small business is a huge economic opportunity wherever trees grow and every tree that is used in the local wood market directly lowers the demand for illegal logging in developing countries and at home. This is the one thing we can do that really has an instant effect in the timber industry.

Cheap imported wood and wood products come at a very high cost. The cheapest wood products on sale come from trees that are not paid for at a fair price, often stolen in fact. The logs were shipped to countries with cheapest labor working under the worst conditions, using the cheapest glues and finishes, with few environmental protections. Then the products are shipped back around the world and sold in big corporate stores or online by local workers getting minimum wage. The cheap product soon wears out and must be landfilled then replaced.

Well-made wood products from locally-grown timber, whether from the urban harvest or from local coppice operations, will cost a bit more but they will last for generations and thus are far better for the customer's wallet and for the Planet, and most will be handmade to boot.

© 2015