Let’s Make Urban Wood a Household Name

By Jennifer Alger, CEO
Far West Forest Products

The terms urban lumber, salvaged logs and reclaimed or recycled wood often get used interchangeably. While all of these terms are about repurposing wood and keeping it out of the waste stream, in mind there are some important distinctions to their meanings and thus how they should be used.

Urban Lumber is the lumber sawn from trees that have come down in storms or were removed for any reason from your city neighborhoods, yards, parks and streets. This is the wood that traditionally would have gone to your local landfill, cut into firewood or fed into the chipper. By purchasing urban lumber or products made from urban lumber, you help extend the lifecycle of your local community trees. Urban Lumber also fits into the salvaged category as well.

Salvaged logs is wood that has not been previously sawn into lumber and is typically still in log form when we acquire it. Many of our salvage logs are windfalls – literally trees that came down in a storm. By utilizing these logs for lumber it allows us to extend the lifecycle of the tree. This is how we get much of our old-growth material. Salvaged logs can come from an urban setting and fit into the urban lumber category, or they can be from forests as well. Essentially these are any logs from trees that were not felled for their timber value.

Reclaimed or recycled wood is wood that has previously been sawn into lumber and used in the construction of buildings, bridges, water-tanks or other structures. Reclaimed wood has been removed during some type of a demolition project and instead of going to the landfills, its lifecycle has been extended by recycling it and preparing it to be used again.

Why Buy Urban, Salvaged or Reclaimed Wood Products?
In the late ’90s, it was estimated that 3.8 million tons of solid wood waste was going into California’s landfills each year. This dramatic number just show what was happening in our area; there was a similar situation around the U.S. when there was an incredible amount of exotic wood being imported. We are not advocating that you should stop using imported woods. In fact, we we may even carry some of them. But we do believe that we can better utilize the woods that are right here in our local communities. In many cases they are every bit as beautiful as the treasured exotics from around the world with their burl, figure, spalting or other character features.

By turning logs into lumber instead of material left to rot in a landfill, you essentially stop the decomposition process and sequester the carbon. In addition, by purchasing and using local trees the carbon used to transport the exotics from overseas is lessened. Couple all that with the fact that most urban wood in the U.S. is milled on portable thin kerf band-saws such as a Wood-Mizer, that consume an extremely low amount of energy, and you really take a big whack at lowering the overall carbon footprint by utilizing  urban wood.

We at Far West Forest Products encourage you to take a look at urban wood as your first option. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the local economy, and it’s Beautiful!

Not only that, where else can you get a one-of-a-kind piece of wood or lumber that no one else has with which to build your next family heirloom. The urban wood industry is utilizing woods that are typically not used as lumber because there aren’t enough of them to create a commercial market for the larger mills.

A Brief History of the Urban Lumber Movement
The urban lumber movement became a “thing” in the ’80s, and really started to gain momentum in the ’90s. The concept, however, has been around for much longer and stemmed from the, “waste-not, want-not” generation. I can remember as a child in the ’70s going out with my dad to buy urban hardwood trees that were dead or dying and I know this was happening long before I came along.

I remember the famous Hooker Oak tree that fell in Bidwell Park in Chico, CA. It was thought to be the largest white oak tree in the world. An Oroville sawmill owner milled it into usable lumber in 1980 in order to preserve this historic landmark. There are countless other stories where sentimental and historic value has been preserved in urban trees by recycling them and giving them a second life which date back to before the term “urban lumber” really took off. Our customers love it when we can give them the rich backstory on the piece of wood they are selecting for their projects.

Why I’m a Proponent of a Market-Driven Solution
I believe that collectively our urban products will be more affordable and more sustainable if the industry grows through market-driven solutions as opposed to legislative action. Although I’m very passionate about using urban products whenever possible, I fear that legislating it could complicate the process to the extent that the average sawyer and lumber producer either couldn’t afford to do it or wouldn’t want to deal with the paperwork that comes when the government gets too involved in an industry.This in turn would drive up the price of urban wood products as well as potentially decrease the supply.The industry has to be viable economically for the tree service company, the sawyer, and the consumer in order for it to be sustainable.

I would prefer that local governments get behind and support (as Cal Fire’s Urban Forestry division in California has), but not necessarily legislate the urban wood industry with cumbersome red tape. I believe that if we can educate the consumer, and keep it affordable; they will choose urban wood products based upon environmental, economic, emotional and aesthetic reasons.

Let’s work together to make urban lumber and urban wood household names and go-to products for every wood products consumer in America.

Jennifer Alger, CEO, Far west Forest ProductsJennifer Alger is CEO of Far West Forest Products of Sheridan, CA, a family-owned business that actively works to promote the use of local native species and underutilized logs including reclaimed urban wood. Jennifer has worked alongside her father and brothers for most of her life and for more than the past decade also has been a regional representative for Wood-Mizer   portable sawmills. She has presented at several urban log and lumber utilization workshops and seminars focused on marketing, growing and operating a small sawmill business, including the first urban wood utilization seminar ever presented at the International Woodworking Fair last month in Atlanta. You can contact Jennifer at info@farwestforest.com.