Logging the urban forest

Hardwood mills could be key to reviving the city’s canopy of trees

Micro-mill on loan from the California Department of Forestry.

Micro-mill on loan from the California Department of Forestry.

Photo courtesy of California Department of Forestry

Want to save the urban forest? Try logging it.That’s what urban forest expert Eric Oldar at the California Department of Forestry says. It may sound heretical, especially to Sacramentans known to boast about living in the “city of trees” and who extol the virtues of its majestic old canopy.

But what is less well-known is that the urban forests here and in many California cities are old, riddled with disease and may one day collapse entirely.

“If we just continue to practice geriatric forestry, the situation is never going to get better,” Oldar said. “Inevitably, the bubble is going to pop.”

By geriatric forestry, Oldar means the reluctance to remove trees even when they are diseased or dying. At its extreme, this philosophy can be summed up as “A dead tree is better than no tree.”

What Oldar recommends is removal of troubled trees sooner rather than later. But just as important, he says cities must recognize that many urban trees make for valuable hardwood once they are logged, milled and sold. By milling and marketing diseased or geriatric trees, cities could fund better urban forestry practices.

The key to a sustainable urban forest, most experts agree, is one that is as diverse as possible in terms of the species and age of trees. But most local governments, Sacramento included, are unable to do much more than respond to emergencies, trees downed by storms or those posing an immediate threat to life or property.

Hundreds, even thousands, of dollars are spent maintaining ancient elms, oaks and other trees that have long surpassed their healthy lives. For the most part, proactive approaches to promoting a diverse and healthy urban forest fall by the wayside.

Yet removing the junk trees is no small task.

For example, in Sacramento County there are some 80,000 Modesto ash trees that dot the yards of the county’s older suburbs. On the whole, this population is unhealthy, dying, riddled with the parasite mistletoe. But removing these “junk trees” and planting anew would most likely be a financial nightmare for the county.

Some of that cost could be offset, however, if the removal operation somehow paid for itself. It turns out that it could. And that’s where Oldar comes in.

While trees such as the Modesto ash are a bane to the health of the urban forest, they are potentially a boon to the market for much-sought-after exotic hardwoods. Once milled, an urban ash tree can fetch more than $3 per board-foot (12 inches by 12 inches by 1 inch).

Some exotic species, such as the Acacia, can go for as much as $7, $8 or $9 per board-foot. Compare that to the forest products from our nearby wild forest. Sugar pines and redwoods typically command $3.20 to $3.50 per board-foot.

The question is whether local governments are savvy enough to turn the problem of declining urban forests into an asset rather than a burden. That’s why Oldar has begun a pilot program through CDF that loans “micro-mills” to communities and organizations that are interested in milling wood that comes from the cities. The 30-foot-long mills are portable and cost around $25,000.

The pilot program includes just a handful of organizations. Palomar Community College is one, where students are using one of Oldar’s micro-mills to earn a professional certificate in wood-milling. A nonprofit organization in San Francisco has applied for a mill to begin making urban wood furniture. And in Sacramento, some of the wood from municipal tree removal is sent to an Auburn company called California Hardwoods Producer and milled for use as hardwood paneling and flooring.

Oldar says the program could be greatly expanded in the Sacramento region and in other cities: “California is sitting on a very rich forest of hardwoods, and they don’t know it.”

Sacramento alone currently removes about 800 of its 150,000 street trees every year. It is estimated that about 28,000 board-feet per year could be harvested, just in the removal of dead or diseased trees. Right now, most of that is recycled as firewood, turned into wood chips for landscaping or turned into mulch.

All of this might lead one to believe that CDF is promoting making a quick buck off our backyard trees.

“The public is skeptical. They think an agency like ours just sees the wood value,” he said. But Oldar isn’t talking about clear-cutting the elms around McKinley Park or taking chainsaws willy-nilly to downtown. Instead, Oldar is advocating the return of age-old forest practices for the trees that line our city streets and hang above our yards.

“A couple of years ago, people told me I was crazy,” Oldar said. “I’m not here just to harvest all of your trees. I’m here to enhance your forest.”

Oldar suggests that by looking at the urban forest as having a real, measurable value, urban forestry will come of age. Part of that value is seeing wood as a resource. But the way people have historically looked at trees has become disconnected in the urban environment.

“The problem is that most people don’t see the real use of an urban tree. A tree is thought of as an aesthetic amenity, no more than the Christmas wrapping on our development,” said Oldar.

Yet Oldar may get some help from community activists such as Kevin Keegan, who has made it his personal mission to rid his boyhood neighborhood of Del Paso Manor of the dreaded Modesto ash.

“We have an immense problem here. A lot of these trees need to be brought down,” said Keegan.

For years, he has been needling county officials to take a proactive approach to getting rid of junk trees and planting new, more appropriate species. He has spent thousands of dollars personally removing trees and replanting new ones for his neighbors. He says he is about halfway done with replanting all of Del Paso Manor.

If the county would underwrite something like Oldar’s program, the benefits could be enormous, Keegan said.

“It’s going to take a very long time to get caught up. This could be a very beautiful place,” Oldar said. “Or it could become a complete nightmare.”