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The Growing Economy of Salvaged Urban Wood

New York Heartwoods owner Megan Offner

New York Heartwoods (NYH) began in 2010, with the help of Dave and Steve Washburn, Hugh Herrera, myself, and a portable sawmill. Our plan to manage and harvest trees ourselves was scratched when we realized how many were falling over, dying and being removed by arborists.

Multiple severe storms and several invasive insect epidemics have led to unprecedented challenges to our forests and communities while budgets of municipalities and landowners are stretched with the reoccurring removals of downed or dying trees. Landfills across the country are struggling to keep up with the amount of wood waste that is being generated and at the same time, people need jobs and communities are evolving to become more resilient.

By processing urban wood, we participate in creating solutions: reducing wood disposal expenses, redirecting material from our waste stream, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, fueling the demand for local wood products, and growing an exciting new economy.

Urban Wood in Perspective

According to Stephen M. Bratkovich from the USDA Forest Service,“In the United States, over 200 million cubic yards of urban tree and landscape residue are generated every year. Of this amount, 15 percent is classified as ‘unchipped logs’. To put this figure in perspective, consider that if these logs were sawn into boards, they theoretically would produce 3.8 billion board feet of lumber, or nearly 30 percent of the hardwood lumber produced annually in the United States."

Due to annual weather events like Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, along with the arrival of pests, such as the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), we have access to more logs than we are equipped to process. Harvesting logs ourselves is labor-intensive and, therefore, in most cases, cost-prohibitive at our scale.

Community relationships are the key to both supply and demand. By working with tree services we can have waste logs delivered for free or, at most, for the cost of gas and the driver’s time. Beyond the tree services that provide logs and clients to buy wood, are landowners, institutions, land trusts, the Department of Transportation, utility companies, municipal land managers and local officials. We have found the latter is an especially fruitful connection as they control what the contracted arborist does with city trees.

As most towns and cities are burdened with increasing costs for citywide services, decreasing revenues, rising landfill costs, and decreasing landfill space, redirecting logs creates waste management solutions and reduces storm clean up expenses, which can generate wood for park benches, picnic tables, fencing, flooring and cabinets for city buildings. The ability to ameliorate local issues while creating valuable lumber may lead to municipal contracts and resources that will support both log supply and the demand for products.

Logs recovered after Hurricane Sandy

Giving Meaning to Urban Wood

Portable band sawmills have a great advantage over large circular sawmills when working with urban trees. Their ability to travel to sites can eliminate logistical challenges and expenses of transporting or disposing of logs.

For example, after Hurricane Sandy landfills were at full capacity so many cities and towns across New York State designated parking lots for the staging of logs. Local sawyers were invited to come mill what they wanted for free, and even still, it took months for many of those piles to diminish.

The possibility of hitting metal, common in urban trees, is too expensive a risk for commercial circular sawmills. Metal can dull blades and slow down band saw production, but since the narrow band blades are inexpensive and easy to sharpen, that value can be recouped with proper marketing of the tree’s story and the wood’s character.

Urban trees generally have lower branches and contain metal or other foreign objects, creating dramatic knots, colors, and grain. These unique characteristics, along with the tree’s history, are desirable to artisans, fabricators, interior designers and architects for the creation of furniture, flooring and other custom products.

Documenting the tree’s story and providing pictures of its transformation into finished products adds value by making it more meaningful to the buyer. Every industry uses wood in some capacity, which leads to a multitude of niche market possibilities. By reaching out to my previous networks to see how I could create solutions to their problems, I was able to build most of my business on personal contacts and word-of-mouth.

Megan Offner sawmilling

The Future of Urban Wood

As my access to urban markets is one of NYH’s strengths, I am increasingly brokering wood for other local sawyers with a similar ethos. I see that in the same way that marketing and distribution hubs are being created to assist the success of small farmers, and local wood being the next “local food”, there is needed support for the growing number of independent sawyers.

The Illinois Urban Wood Utilization team and Urbanwood in Michigan are two wonderful non-profit models of networks that facilitate the wood use chain from arborists, sawyers, woodworkers, distributors to buyers. As our population grows, so does the amount of urban land in the United States.

According to the Journal of Forestry, by 2050 the amount of urbanized areas is projected to increase from 3.1% in 2000 to 8.1%, a total of 392,400 km, which is larger than the state of Montana. With this, the production and sale of urban wood will also grow, and there will be more integration into municipal management systems. For now, innovation is happening on the ground - one mill at a time.

Megan Offner is the co-founder of New York Heartwoods, a woman-owned social enterprise LLC in Warwick, NY in 2010. Her mission is to regenerate forest vitality and local economies by building systems and relationships that maximize the value of “waste” trees.

The Wood-Mizer Team includes a diverse group of woodworkers, farmers, homesteaders, arborists, entrepreneurs, and more who are excited to share their knowledge and experiences of working with wood from forest to final form. Since 1982, the team has brought portable, personal sawmills to people all over the world who want the freedom of sawing their own lumber. Find Wood-Mizer on their website, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest and Twitter. Read all of the team’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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