Inside the Washington, DC beltway – a densely populated area of roughly 20 by 20 miles – trees removed due to disease, death, and development contained 200 million board feet of usable lumber in 2008. That’s enough wood to frame more than 12,000 homes of 2,000 square feet each.
But instead, nearly all of it was chipped, hauled away, and then burned or dumped into landfills. In urban areas across the US, 3.8 billion board feet of usable wood was cut down and discarded that year – more than the amount logged from Oregon, one of the country’s top lumber-producing states.
Woodworker Chris Holmgren in Dickerson, Maryland, set out to change that. On the vanguard of the urban wood recovery movement that has recently taken root in cities across the US, Chris envisioned a community-scale production facility that uses every part of a fallen tree to build a local wood economy. With help from a US Forest Service grant, he brought the idea to life on his farm 25 miles northwest of Washington, DC. His business, Seneca Creek Joinery, now handles all aspects of wood processing, from removing dead trees to finishing furniture.
Life after death: a trunk’s journey
When a tree falls in a forest, does it make a mess? To human eyes, perhaps, but dead wood and leaves help to build soil, habitat, and biodiversity, so they should be left on site to return to the earth. That’s not always possible when a tree falls in a city or suburb. So Chris turns small branches and leaves into woodchips that are either left on site as mulch, or composted at his farm. Whenever he can, he leaves the stump in place to prevent soil erosion. The trunk and any branches more than 4 inches in diameter are sawn into long pieces, and then loaded onto a small log truck and taken to the farm.
Once there, the logs are loaded onto Chris’s sawmill one by one and sliced into boards, planks, siding, and timbers. The lumber is stacked and dried for a few months in a kiln made from a repurposed shipping container – and is then ready to serve as a beautiful, durable alternative to plastic composites and monocropped plantation timber shipped in from afar.
Chris’s woodshop is an eclectic mix of modern and traditional tools, such as a foot-powered lathe and an array of original and reproduction 18th-century hand-tools – which, he points out, never need charging.
Smaller pieces of high quality wood are destined for furniture and cabinets, unique to each piece of wood and each customer. When someone’s cherished tree blows down in a storm or succumbs to disease, the wood can be returned to the person’s home in the form of furniture, utensils, and other keepsakes. Even logs that are largely rotten or splintered often contain enough wood for bowls, spoons, and other kitchen tools. Wood that is knotted, crooked, or otherwise unsuitable for furniture or small items is split into firewood using a small hydraulic splitter.
To make use of the mill’s abundance of sawdust, Chris and his wife Pat run a small blueberry farm on site; blueberry bushes thrive in the acidic soil that sawdust mulch creates.
Each step of the operation radiates into the local community and economy. Chris’s Forest Service grant helped form the Community Woodlands Alliance, a group of architects, contractors, foresters, tree removal companies, ecologists, and planners dedicated to working with the beauty and diversity of local recovered wood. It still exists as an informal network, and Chris maintains a partnership with the nearby city of Rockville to mill all trees removed for roadways and other construction projects.
In the past decade, other urban wood recovery initiatives have sprung up across the country. From New York Heartwoods in the Hudson Valley to the Sustainable Wood Recovery Initiative at Michigan State University, to Wood from the Hood in Minneapolis and the Baltimore Wood Project, businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies are working together to build furniture, livelihoods, and communities around wood that was once considered “waste”.
The next time you need to buy a new desk, replace worn-out kitchen utensils, or take down a diseased tree in your yard, see how you can get involved in your local wood recovery economy!
Primal Woods Sawyers offers a guide to finding and working with local sawmills.
Explore more grassroots initiatives for localization and community resilience in Local Futures’ Planet Local library.
 An interview with Chris Holmgren in 2008: Hartman, Eviana, “Woodworker’s Goal: No Log Left Behind”, Washington Post, N02, Sept 14, 2008, Piepkorn, Mark, “Lumber by the Numbers”, Continuing Education Center: Architecture and Construction,
 Hartman, op. cit.
 Biomass from local “waste” wood is a responsible renewable energy source — no need for rare earth metals, factories, or the global shipping industry. It’s true that even the most efficient woodstoves produce particulate pollution that impacts air quality and human health, and aren’t suitable for densely populated areas. But in rural Maryland, where the mill is located, many people still use woodstoves as a primary heating source — and the firewood emits far less pollution than if it were burnt in open piles, as much discarded timber is. For an overview of environmental considerations surrounding woodstoves, please see http://www.alternativeenergyprimer.com/Environmental-effects-of-wood-burning.html
Photo: Oak tree, Carly Gayle