In the 1990s, an invasive species of beetle known as the emerald ash borer was accidentally introduced to America’s forests. With the first detection here in 2002, Michigan became ground zero for an infestation that has spread across 14 states, and which experts fear could eventually destroy most of the 7.5 million ash trees in North America. Urban trees have not been spared, leading to an increase in the amount of dead timber making its way through tree company chippers.
In an effort to promote the recycling of dead urban trees into useful lumber instead of landfill, the Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation and Development Council joined with the USDA Forest Service and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to create the Urbanwood Project. “We were thrilled to find that there were many small sawmills in our region that were already salvaging logs from local communities, and we decided to do what we could to support their effort,” said Jessica Simons, a natural resources specialist with the SMRCDC.
The project has been a great success: it currently involves seven producers of lumber (in Ann Arbor, Flint, Dexter, North Adams, Belleville, Troy, and Bath) and two sales outlets, one at Recycle Ann Arbor’s ReUse Center, and one at the Genesee County Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Flint. For people looking to buy finished products made from this rescued timber, Urbanwood Project partner Urban Ashes uses the wood to create specialty picture frames that can be found in boutiques across Michigan.
The donor tree may be dead or dying, but the resulting lumber is excellent. The diligence and dedication of the Urbanwood Project producers means that only the best logs get used, and the quality matches that of lumber from traditional sources. “The diversity, sustainability, and story are what sets this wood apart from traditional forest products,” Simons said. The logs are processed one at a time on a custom mill, giving the wood interesting quirks and character details that you won’t find in boards from a typical lumber yard.
In addition to helping the environment and turning out great products, the Urbanwood Project boosts the economy of the towns where they have set up shop. According to Simons, it’s because they depend on a local chain of arborists, sawmills, kilns, and marketplaces to create and distribute their lumber, a great example of how a green business can also be good business. Simons has been with the project since its inception, and couldn’t be happier. “The group has such fantastic people involved,” she says, “They care about their community, they care about the environment, and they simply do good work.”
The hope is that the continued growth and success of the Urbanwood Project will inspire other groups around the country to do the same. For more information, including an online shop in which you can view their products, be sure to check out Urbanwood.org. You can also follow them on Facebook and YouTube for news and updates. It’s an ambitious, creative, and spectacular project well worth keeping an eye on.
Brian Murray – Feature Writer