They Wood If They Could

coalition wants to make better use of city-cut lumber

Tom Giffey, photos by Kelly Whitman

CARVING, NOT CHIPPING. Currently, almost all the trees cut down by city of Eau Claire crews are turned into woodchips (bottom). A new coalition is hoping to get more of this wood into the hands of those who will make better use of it, such as the Chippewa Valley Woodturners Guild, who create work like this (top).
CARVING, NOT CHIPPING. Currently, almost all the trees cut down by city of Eau Claire crews are turned into woodchips (below). A new coalition is hoping to get more of this wood into the hands of those who will make better use of it, such as the Chippewa Valley Woodturners Guild, who create work like this (above).

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? We’re still pondering that philosophical question. However, we do know what happens when a tree falls in Eau Claire, at least on city property: It’s turned into wood chips. That’s fine if you need raw material for landscaping, but a trip through the teeth of a grinder is not necessarily the highest and best use of city lumber. Maybe the dead wood could have new life as furniture, kitchen cabinets, or even artwork.

Leadership Eau Claire participants have formed an ad hoc coalition, which includes representatives from the city and local businesses, with the goal of developing a way that the city could give private individuals access to city wood. Leadership Eau Claire participant Karen Hauck says the coalition has generated interest from everyone from woodturners to manufacturers. The goal of the group is to create policies and procedures to give private individuals access to trees felled by the city, said Hauck, who works for the Girl Scouts of the Northwestern Great Lakes office in Eau Claire. While there are a variety of challenges – both logistical and financial – the coalition hopes to create a model to surmount them, perhaps by creating a nonprofit group to oversee the program. Meetings and discussions about the future of the coalition are ongoing.

At a recent meeting, Scott Lyon of the state Department of Natural Resources told the coalition that urban wood was becoming a popular raw material elsewhere in Wisconsin and the U.S. For example, a company in southeastern Wisconsin called Kettle Moraine Hardwoods uses logs from downed trees in the city of Milwaukee. Lyon, a DNR forest products services specialist, compared the trend to the increasing popularity of farmers markets and locally grown food. While not all urban wood is high quality enough to be used in other products, he said, any use is better than dumping the wood in a landfill.

Chwala, the city forester, agrees. Currently, he says, the city occasionally solicits bids from log buyers when a lot of usable logs pile up, but most of the trees it processes end up getting chipped, typically by an enormous tub grinder the city leases for roughly $500 an hour. In recent years, the city has cut down an increasing number of trees. In addition to the 200 to 300 trees the city cuts annually because of wind damage and other reasons, over the past four years it has felled nearly 2,000 ash trees as a preventative measure to address the inevitable arrival of the emerald ash borer, which is expected to wipe out the city’s ash trees in the near future.

Ideally, selling more of the ash, maple, oak, and other trees the city cuts down will both help offset some of the cost of processing the wood as well as help businesses as and better manage waste, Chwala says.

Are you interested in helping the coalition move forward? If so, contact leadershipecurbanwoodproject@gmail.com for more information.

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