Tom The Sawyer
Portable Sawmill Service
Eudora, Kansas  (816) 896-5170

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Urban Forestry

Lumber or landfill?   Furniture or firewood?
                                                                                   The choice is up to you!
Urban lumber, tree-cycling, woody waste reclamation; they're all 'green' or ecological terms for a process that some of us have been practicing for years.  Usually those terms refer to logs that come from locations within city limits or subdivisions... it may even include trees growing near rural homes.  A definition that I like is "lumber from trees that came down for some reason other than their timber value."

Most urban trees are destined for the landfill once their useful life is completed.  Estimates are that we dump more than 160 million tons of woody waste in landfills each year.  A significant portion of that waste includes decent saw logs - millions of board feet of lumber wasted.  Some of those trees, planted as a decorative or landscaping alternative, may provide "exotic" lumber - not native to the surrounding area, and not found in most lumberyards.  It is so disappointing to see potential saw logs chopped up into firewood, mulched or, worse yet, hauled off to decay in a landfill.

In the next few years we are likely to have even more urban trees to salvage.  Kansas is now within the range of another invasive insect,  the Emerald Ash Borer.  This pest is expected to kill off 90% of our ash trees in the next decade.  Johnson, Wyandotte, Leavenworth, Douglas, Jefferson, Atchison, and Doniphan counties in Kansas, and all of Missouri, are currently under Federal EAB quarantine.   There are other potential problems; Asian Longhorn Beetle, Thousand Cankers Disease of Walnut, Gypsy Moth, and many others, but EAB is the most serious threat in the near future.

Whenever a tree comes down there will be parts of that tree for which the best use may very well be as firewood or mulch.  There may also be portions of that tree that would be suitable for furniture or other woodworking projects.  Personally, I don't cut trees down for logs, I prefer to salvage what is already down. 

Our local landfill charges $56 per ton with a 3-ton minimum for trees and brush.  A 24" diameter, 12' long oak log would weigh about 2400 pounds.  The landfill fee would be $168 plus the cost of cutting it into pieces, loading it and hauling it to the dump.  You might find someone who would take it for the firewood, maybe 1/3 of a cord.  Either way you end up with nothing.  That log should yield at least 300 board feet of lumber and the cost to have it milled would be about $150.  Once air dried, you may have almost $1000 worth of lumber for your projects.  That's a pretty good return on your investment.  There is a great deal of pride in a project that you took from a standing tree to a family heirloom.

There are definite ecological benefits to turning your logs into lumber.  Trees process carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, through photosynthesis, return oxygen to the air and store the carbon in the biomass of the tree, a process known as carbon sequestration.  About 40% of a tree's mass is carbon.  After that tree comes down, carbon dioxide is returned to the atmosphere as the tree decays or is burned.  The portion of the tree that is preserved, milled into lumber and dried, retains that carbon within the lumber indefinitely.

Urban trees are not without their challenges.  Large mills won't normally handle them due to the potential for metal or other debris in the logs.  Although you don't remember building a tree house, nailing up a sign, or attaching a fence or clothesline to that tree; who knows what has happened while humans have been around that tree for the last 50-150 years.  A conventional mill with a large circular blade that hits debris may destroy a very expensive blade, hurl shrapnel throughout the work area and suffer quite a bit of downtime.  I try to avoid metal while sawing but if I hit an object and destroy a blade, the cost is about $25, and if it only dulls the blade, it would be even less.  Plus, no shrapnel flying around is a definite safety advantage.

If you have a tree down and don't have a use for the lumber, consider the benefits to the environment and donate the log.  If I can convert into usable lumber I may even haul it away for free.  Ask your tree service if they would charge you less if they don't have to dispose of the logs.  Many of the logs I have on hand were purchased from tree services who brought decent saw logs to me rather than paying a dump fee at a landfill.