Tree-Killing Beetle Creates Opportunity For Urban Lumber Mills

Jun 3, 2014

Ash trees are dying across much of the country. A green beetle, the emerald ash borer, has spread from the Upper Midwest, imperiling millions of trees.

But there is opportunity amid the destruction. Urban lumber mills that saw up salvaged city trees are on the rise — spurred by mounting demand for local products and a tsunami of supply delivered by the emerald ash borer.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Frank Morris of KCUR reports from Kansas City.


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Ash trees are dying across much of the United States thanks to a green beetle, the emerald ash borer, that has spread from the upper Midwest and imperiled millions of trees. But amid the destruction, some are seeing an opportunity. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, KCUR's Frank Morris reports from Kansas City.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: The emerald ash borer has been at work in Michigan for years.

JESSICA SIMONS: Unfortunately, it sneaks up on you. It slammed us before we knew what was coming.

MORRIS: Jessica Simons coordinates the Urban Wood Project from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That's just a few miles from where the emerald ash borer first showed up from Asia in 2002. And Simon says the beetles have since killed virtually every ash tree in the area.

SIMONS: Oh, well, you know, the home that we used to live in, the whole edge of the property was nothing but ash trees. And by the time we moved, it was just a row of dead, sad looking snags. I mean, it was really, really upsetting to see how even our own yard had changed.

MORRIS: The scourge has spread across most of the Midwest into parts of New England and the south - Canada and Colorado. The beetles landed near Kansas City probably seven or eight years ago. But the city's forester, Kevin Lapointe, says the damage is just starting to show.

KEVIN LAPOINTE: Now, this is typically what you're going to see. There's a perfect D-shaped hole right there. And there's another one. See, these trees are loaded with these beetles, and they're coming out of here this spring.

MORRIS: We're up by the Kansas City airport looking at a lot of pitiful trees.

LAPOINTE: You know, you got a stone dead one down there, stone dead down there, stone dead down there. All these are like half dead or dying. And it's worse than I thought it would be.

MORRIS: And it's just beginning. More than 4.5 million ash trees grow across the nine county, Kansas City area now. Cities and property owners will pay to treat a fraction of them against the emerald ash borer. Lapointe says all the rest are as good as dead.

LAPOINTE: And when this thing really hits, you're going to see thousands of trees dying at the same time. And then you have the whole issue of disposal of all this material that's going to be dying. Where's it going to go? What are you going to do with it?


O'NEILL: We're in a lucky spot because the trees are coming down and we're ready to catch them.

MORRIS: Tim O'Neill, the guy manning the big chain saw here, runs a business called Urban Lumber, which until recently was more of a hobby than a job. He milled yard trees for his own woodworking projects and a little beer money.

O'NEILL: You know, I'm a wood nut. You know, so when you start to solve things that normally would never hit a sawmill, you get all kinds of crazy things. And for me, that's really where it gets exciting.

MORRIS: But when the emerald ash borers started hitting this part of the country, a company that collects tree waste, Missouri Organic, called O'Neill to see if he'd like to really get busy with this city timber business. They helped him turn an old metal auto-parts warehouse into an urban lumber yard with tall, thick planks of local maple, walnut and of course ash filling the racks.

O'NEILL: It's just huge. It's going from sort of, like, an amateur level to a professional level. I just can't believe we're standing in a show room of hardwood lumber that's harvested from the city right now - you know, 200 trees out back waiting to get sawed up. So it keeps getting better and better and better.

MORRIS: Urban Lumbers grand opening draws a mix of gnarled woodworkers, some missing a finger or two, construction executives in crisp dress shirts and architects.

MARK MCHENRY: Well, I just think their timing is great. There's so much emphasis these days on local materials. That's a big part of the sustainable movement in my profession, architecture.

MORRIS: Mark McHenry, beaming over his cup of local craft beer, says growing demand for local products coupled with the enormous dead tree supply on the way should be good for Urban Lumber.

MCHENRY: I think these guys are absolutely going to take off.

MORRIS: That's the idea. O'Neill's already talking about expanding the showroom, opening branches across the state line in Kansas. All that sounds great to Ryan Armbrust with the Kansas Forest Service because if companies like Urban Lumber can create a market for city timber, the enormous ash tree die-off might just help fund the next generation of urban forest.

RYAN ARMBRUST: If that dead tree that has a value, that means that it's not just something that we have to deal with and take out of the way. But potentially, and this is very hypothetical still at this stage, but potentially the value of that tree can be used to re-support planting programs that can get more trees back into our communities.

MORRIS: So far, demand would be the weak link in this urban timber cycle because with storms getting stronger, with rampant pests and disease killing everything from ash to pine to walnut, city trees are sure to keep dying and fueling this industry with a steady supply of wood for years to come. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.