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As Ash Trees Die Off, Kansas City Man Primes New Urban Lumber Industry

Frank Morris

Ash trees across much of the country are dying as a result of a green beetle called the emerald ash borer. The bug 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, fertilized by mounting demand for local products and a tsunami of supply delivered by the emerald ash borer.

It came from Asia, by way of Michigan

The emerald ash borer has been at work in Michigan for years.

“Unfortunately, it sneaks up on you,” says Jessica Simons, who coordinates the Urbanwood Project. “It slammed us before we knew it was coming.”

Simons lives in Anne Arbor, Mich., just a few miles from where the emerald ash borer first showed up from Asia in 2002.  And she says the beetles have since killed virtually every ash tree in the area.

“The home that we, that we used to live in. The whole edge property was nothing but ash trees,” sighs Simons. “By the time we moved, it was just a row of dead, sad looking snags. It was really upsetting to see how even our own yard had changed.”

The scourge has spread across most of the Midwest, and into parts of New England, 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.

“There’s a perfect D-shaped hole, right there. There’s another one,” says Lapointe. “These trees are loaded with these beetles and they’re coming out of here this spring.”

The trees he’s talking about are in a parking lot, just off Tiffany Springs Parkway, near KCI. Most have died back partially, some are in much worse shape.

“You got stone dead one down there, stone dead down there, stone dead down there,” motions Lapoint. “All these are half dead or dying. And, uh, it’s worse than I thought it would be.”    

The damage isn’t uniform. Lapointe motions to city ash trees lining the parkway that appear healthy. He says those trees have been treated against the emerald ash borer. But the treatment’s not cheap. Cities and property owners will pay to treat a fraction of the four and a half million ash trees growing in the nine-county Kansas City area. Lapointe says all the rest are as good as dead.

“When this thing really hits, you are going to see thousands of trees dying at the same time,” says Lapointe. “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?”

Urban lumber

Tim O’Neill has an answer.

“We’re in a lucky spot because the trees are coming down and we’re ready to catch them,” says O’Neil.

Credit Frank Morris / KCUR
Tim O’Neill in the showroom at Urban Lumber in Kansas City, Mo.

He runs a business called Urban Lumber in Kansas City, Mo., which until recently, was more of a hobby than a job. He milled yard trees for his own wood working projects, and a little beer money. 

When the emerald ash borer 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 racks.

“It’s just huge, going from an amateur level to a professional level,” says O’Neill. “I just can’t believe we’re sitting in a showroom with hard wood lumber harvested from the city right now. You know, 200 trees waiting to get sawn up, so it keeps getting better and better and better."

O’Neill’s mobile saw mill, mounted on a truck trailer, slices a 2000 pound oak log into manageable planks. It’s not uncommon to hit bullets, nails or bigger hunks of metal in city trees. They’re not practical for industrial use. Most saw mills won’t touch them. Urban trees do have character though, and they’re free.  

Tree trimmers drop trunks off rather than paying to dispose of them, or cutting them up for cheap stuff like firewood and mulch. O’Neill and his crew saw them into planks to build furniture, cabinets and other decorative fixtures. 

“The only missing piece is to get the wood into the hands of people who can make the most of it,” says O’Neill.

That’s where the new showroom comes in.

Urban Lumber’s grand opening draws a mix of gnarled wood workers, some missing a finger or two, construction executives in crisp dress shirts, and architects.

“Well, I just think their timing is great,” says Mark McHenry, a principal with MSM Architects. “There’s so much emphasis these days on local materials, that’s a big part of the sustainable movement in my profession, architecture.” 

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.

“I think these guys are absolutely going to take off,” he predicts.

That’s the idea.

O’Neill’s already talking about expanding the showroom, and opening branches across the state line in Kansas. All of which 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 urban forest.

“If that dead tree then has a value, that means it’s not just something we have to deal with and get out of the way, but potentially, and this is very hypothetical still at this stage, but potentially that value of that tree can be used to support planting programs that can get more trees back into our communities,” says Armbrust.

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, the city trees are sure to keep dying and fueling this industry with steady supply for years to come. 

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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