Today I was part of what will hopefully become the birth of a new category of certified, sustainable lumber in America.
All sorts of interesting people from five states were gathered at this brainstoriming symposium, held in a sustainably built public library in Ann Arbor, MI. Representatives from federal, state and municipal forestry departments, regional arboretums, folks from state departments of natural resources, as well as independent forestry auditors/accreditors and private and commercial wood products makers (like me!) gathered together.
Chief among other topcs was the idea of carving out a new certification system, designation and protocol for lumber recliamed from America's Urban Forests. The aim is to create inroads to bring this lumber to the consumer market in commercial-like quantities.
Let me set the stage for a moment. We're not talking about a guy with a chain saw who's wanting to cut down the occasional tree. We're referring to a regimented system of taking millions of trees in the urban forest - which are coming down ANYWAY for a whole raft of reasons - and then turning those saw logs into useful pieces. The components that aren't saw logs would serve the firewood, mulch, landscape and other such industries. And this is something that is NOT happening today at this level and in this quantity.
The scale? Very literally millions of trees annually from state, local and municipal sources.
These aren't people going out into a stand of managed forest land and selecting which ones are to be cut for commerce. The trees in question are ones that were designated for culling out of URBAN settings. And that's something we see daily. The local arborists and foresters who were at the symposium reported on their cutting volumes and the numbers are really staggering. Factors like invasive insects, fungal disease, etc. are mostly to blame right now.
What happens with the wood now? Well, much of it is either mulched or landfilled. And a significant percentage are 'lost', with no reporting on what happened with them at all.
To lay down some back story, right now the US has as one of its chief accreditation bodies the FSC, or Forestry Stewardship Council. FSC cerfification applies to commercially harvested timber taken from mostly managed forest lands. "Managed' means that replantings replace harvested timber, yielding a sustainable supply, and it relates to the chain of custody of the resources and the state of the management of the land, itself.
Yet there is no designation for timber harvested from our urban forests. That's street parkways, parks and backyards. And it's every bit as valid to call it a 'forest' as the stand of trees you'd drive out to visit in the country.
Certification for this is one of many steps that are being explored in the pursuit of creating a unique and marketable brand for this urban timber. Once certified and branded with a formalized, universal name, the goal is to get this wood into the lumber supply chain in the US.
I am definitely condensing what was a ten hour long conference, and there is a tremendous amount that I'm simply skipping to keep this narrative short and easy to read.
Ultimately the point is this. When parks departments, utility companies and anybody else has to remove a tree from an urban setting due to age, damage, disease or other causes this wood is not necessarily lost. It may look like it's been whisked away, tucked back behing the Great Oz's black curtain, never to be seen or heard from again. In urban and fringe suburban areas this view is pretty prevelant. Interestingly, it's not necessarily the case.
There are many exceptionally influential and plugged-in people who are working to creating a widespread return of this wood to the consumer industry. That could be as boards for sale at woodworking outlets, it could be as lumber for any range of commercial users (think: the lumber inside vinyl windows or lumbercore doors, etc, etc, etc.) or any other thing where timber would be required. Or flooring, trim and other construction needs.
As it sits right now this lumber is sort of in a gray zone, unclassified and unclassifiable within the current FSC guidelines. If this were to change it would be a vehicle (not the method itself, but a vehicle) with which more barriers would come down. And the goal is to then let this HUUUUGE, UNTAPPED local resource find its way into the wood supply chain.
And much of it could be returned to us, the woodworker. And in species that may not be on the menu already at your local wood-o-rama. (But that's a topic for another show.....)
When taken to its conclusion, it's an environmentally green story, taking local resources and turning them back to local demand. One of the very much intended benefits to this is to generate JOBS, as this is a workforce industry that really doesn't exist today.
It's also a very significant savings on the volume of decomposing biomass heading to landfills. Some areas are concerned about the longevity of their dump sites. In SE Michigan alone this reportedly would eliminate an estimated 8.8 million cubic yards of material from heading to landfills each year. And the lumber would have a second life as a useful component in any manner of applications.
Urban timber is a topic of conversation that you may hear more of in the coming months and years. And for me, it was very interesting to be part of the breakout groups all day and to participate in the brainstorming sessions about the logistics, steps and overall ingredients required to take a new wood product to market.