Kansas City Forester Kevin Lapointe crouched by the just-cut limb of a dying ash tree, scraped back the bark, and sure enough, found the telltale S-shaped scarring from the emerald ash borer’s lethal infestation.
The exotic beetle is killing thousands of metro area ash trees, and many are headed for the sawdust pile.
But not this particular tree, in the 7700 block of East 50th Terrace, just southwest of the Truman Sports Complex.
Because of a $25,000 Missouri Department of Conservation grant and a partnership with an innovative local lumber company, logs from this tree and several hundred other city-owned trees are destined to become coffee tables and other custom furniture, paneling, cupboards, shelving and even baseball bats.
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Unlike commercial ash wood, which can be rather bland and uniform-looking, this urban wood has character, with colored swirls and artistic markings in its natural grain.
“It’s a fantastic program,” Lapointe said of the ability to reuse wood from trees in the public rights of way. “It’s a very bright spot in a kind of gloomy situation.”
Since the emerald ash borer was first spotted in Parkville in 2012 it has rampaged relentlessly across the area, from the Northland to eastern and southern Jackson County as well as to Wyandotte and Johnson counties in Kansas.
The Mid-America Regional Council estimates the nine-county metro area has 6 million ash trees. All are threatened by the emerald ash borer, which has already killed hundreds of millions of trees in North America.
In Kansas City alone, Lapointe counts 15,000 ash trees in public parks and street rights of way, not to mention 400,000 ash trees on private property. Fortunately, about 10,000 of the public ash trees are still healthy enough to be treated, but about 5,000 likely can’t be saved.
Several thousand of those public trees have already been cut down, but Lapointe says this new grant allows for city-owned ash logs to be used in a positive way instead of ground into mulch.
The grant, awarded in December, grew out of discussions between Lapointe; Wendy Sangster, Missouri Conservation Department community conservationist and Tim O’Neill, co-owner of The Urban Lumber Company. O’Neill’s business transforms urban trees into useful lumber that would otherwise be bound for the trash heap.
“Nationwide, this is a huge issue and it’s just going to keep happening with the next insect,” Sangster said of devastating tree infestations. “We’re trying to help develop an infrastructure using urban wood and not have it end up in mulch piles.”
For years, the department has awarded federal forest service grant money to communities to remove and replace dead trees. What makes this unusual, Sangster said, is that Kansas City is using it to encourage creative uses for that wood.
While this is the first time the money has gone for this purpose, it’s possible future grant money also could be used this way, she said.
Most sawmills won’t take these neighborhood trees because they may have nails, holes or other imperfections, Sangster said.
Lapointe is using $15,000 from the grant to pay city crews to remove and transport logs to Urban Lumber. The other $10,000 will be used to create a plan by late fall, analyzing the most advantageous wood products from the city’s tree inventory and how to develop those markets.
O’Neill sees this as a regional and possibly even national model, and he’s on a mission.
The business model
An artist, woodworker and former exhibition designer at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, he started the lumber company in his garage in 2005. A few years ago he was contacted by Kevin and Jason Anderson of Missouri Organic Recycling, who were being inundated with dead ash trees and were trying to find better uses for some of that wood.
In May 2014, O’Neill and partners opened a showroom and sawmill in a former auto parts recycling center at 7200 E. Highway 40, next door to Missouri Organic. He and a few co-workers are now taking the largest logs from ash trees all over the city, as well as countless other hardwood cast-offs, including walnut, hackberry and mulberry.
With this business model, they’re diverting trees from the waste stream.
“It’s beautiful and interesting and free,” O’Neill said.
Partnerships between cities and sawmills have succeeded for more than five years in Michigan and Wisconsin, said Dwayne Sperber, a founding partner of Wisconsin Urban Wood, which is dedicated to diverting usable lumber away from landfills and chippers.
In addition to major environmental benefits, these programs, if sustained, also can save taxpayer dollars and reduce cities’tree removal costs, Sperber said.
On a recent morning that was balmy and perfect for cutting trees, Lapointe watched a parks department forestry crew cut down a large tree in front of a house on East 50th Terrace.
Winter is the time to cut diseased ash trees, he said, while the ash borer is dormant.
The entire street was lined with large ash trees in the right of way, and Lapointe estimated the surrounding area had about 180 public ash trees. Most were tagged to be treated, and that’s a good thing.
Lapointe said they are still healthy enough to benefit from an injected chemical treatment, which is done every few years and can save the trees.
But maybe 15 or 20 of these trees were too old or diseased to be saved, so they will be taken to Urban Lumber, which already has other large ash logs from Benton Boulevard and the West Side.
Terri McCarty, a resident in the home where the tree was cut down, lamented the ash borer infestation.
“We do like the trees,” she said. “I’m a plant lover.”
But she agreed this particular tree had been losing limbs, so she was relieved the parks department was removing it.
McCarty wondered why the parks department wasn’t helping assess ash trees on private property, but Lapointe said there’s no way the city could afford that. It’s already spending $1 million per year ontreatments, removal and replacement for trees on public property.
He said the street tree in front of McCarty’s house and those elsewhere will be replaced with a mix of trees, to guard against another pestilence wiping out one species.
As crews swept away twigs and debris and gathered the usable wood for transport, Lapointe and O’Neill headed toward the lumber company sawmill about 10 minutes away. Along the way, they passed Missouri Organics property, with its tall piles of ground-up wood mulch.
O’Neill eagerly showed off the property, complete with a large pile of newly delivered ash wood in a back yard area, and one giant ash log, 9 feet long and 20 inches in diameter, was ready cut.
Sawyer Tony Melby fired up the machinery and prepared to convert the log to 1-inch boards, which could potentially be enough for a full set of kitchen cabinets.
“You’re only limited by your imagination,” O’Neill said.
Ash wood from The Urban Lumber Company was installed last year as part of the paneling at a Whole Foods store in Olathe.
“It really came out great,” O’Neill said.
Chuck Naylor of Leawood found out about the company on the Internet as he and his wife were remodeling their lake house at the Lake of the Ozarks.
“We wanted to warm it up a bit and give it a lake house feel,” Naylor said. “We were in the market for reclaimed lumber.”
The Naylors visited the showroom last spring and were wowed with O’Neill and his purpose.
“I loved the fact he was doing something green with native trees from Missouri,” Naylor said.
They chose native hackberry wood as paneling for a vaulted ceiling and also for a new kitchen island. Naylor said tt was about a third of the price of what they would have paid from a standard lumber yard, and he is thrilled with the rustic ambiance.
“It was just some really nice, natural grain. We did not stain it,” Naylor said. “We’ll let it age naturally.”
O’Neill said he can take usable logs from nearby municipalities and even residents, but they need to arrange for and pay for transport to the sawmill. More information about the company is at urbanlumberco.com.
For his part, Lapointe plans to continue supplying the company with logs.
“We want this to be a long-term partnership,” he said.