U.S. cities swap dead trees for new in circular economy for forests

by Carey L. Biron | @clbtea | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 26 May 2022 14:30 GMT

A teenager working for Trees Forever in Des Moines, Iowa, waters one of the thousands of new trees planted across the city. Donovan Cole/Handout photo via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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U.S. cities lose about 36 million trees per year. Now, some are looking to sell them as timber to fund new planting

  • Initiatives sell felled city trees to fund new plantings

  • More than 35 million trees lost in U.S. cities each year 

  • Carbon credits also help to boost urban greenery

By Carey L. Biron

BALTIMORE, May 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Paul Timmins fell in love with trees as a boy, so he was excited when decades later people started freely offering them to him - as logs.

Timmins had stumbled across a seemingly unlimited resource: urban trees being chopped down around Baltimore, Maryland.

He now converts them into high-end furniture, countertops, and more - each with a back story on where they came from.

"People would say, 'Wow, that was in my yard. It was producing shade and oxygen, and now it's a table in my house!'" Timmins told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, standing in a shop full of massive wood slabs. 

A worker at a Baltimore shop processes a slab taken from an urban tree. Handout photo by Cambium Carbon.

Now that work is receiving new recognition, as cities aim to profit off wood from urban trees at the end of their lives to ease strain on landfills, and to fund planting and maintaining replacements.

U.S. cities are increasingly recognizing trees as valuable assets that help store carbon, prevent storm damage and even boost wellbeing - but their numbers are dwindling as mature trees die off and are not replaced.

Some 36 million trees fall each year in U.S. cities, producing about 46 million tons of wood - more than was harvested in 2020 by the country's largest timber company, said Ben Christensen, founder of urban lumber startup Cambium Carbon.

Very little of that wood currently gets used, creating waste that is a major expense for cities but also a climate concern, said Christensen, whose business finds buyers for felled city trees and puts 15% of its revenue into new plantings.

"All of these trees you're seeing here probably would have ended up as mulch, maybe as firewood or ... sent to a landfill," he said at Timmins' shop.

Workers process wood slabs taken from urban trees at a Baltimore shop in May. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Carey L. Biron

Cambium Carbon is developing software that helps firms track individual urban trees through the supply chain from the neighborhood where they were taken down, connecting small production shops with national buyers.

Since launching last year, it is working with a half-dozen cities in the United States and Europe.

It points to the enticing prospect of a circular economy for urban trees: from waste to wood to new trees, with new revenue also helping keep existing green cover healthy, said Christensen.

"Everybody loves planting trees," he said.

"When we talk to cities, is it's way harder go get money to help trees survive."

'HUGE SHIFT'

U.S. cities have been seeing significant decline in their tree coverage - losing about 175,000 acres per year, according to a 2018 study from the U.S. Forest Service. 

"We have more wood going from urban areas into landfills than are harvested from our national forests," said Morgan Grove, a Baltimore-based scientist with the Forest Service.

And climate change is expected to accelerate tree mortality, he said, bringing stronger storms and more pests.

"It's kind of a game changer to elevate the enterprises that know how to make money at this," Grove said of initiatives working to create urban timber supply chains nationwide.

"Over the next three to seven years, we could start to create a huge shift."

The front desk at the National Geographic headquarters in Washington is made from reclaimed urban wood processed by a Baltimore shop. Handout photo by Garrett Rowland Photography LLC.

Other businesses focusing on urban lumber include Wood from the Hood in Minneapolis, Tri-Lox in New York and West Coast Arborists in California.

Pittsburgh is working with Cambium Carbon, particularly focused on hilly areas where the city has taken over properties prone to landslides, said Rebecca Kiernan, the city's principal resilience planner. 

New trees can help stabilize the ground and prevent further landslips following record rainfalls in recent years, she said.

"This is exciting to explore some new revenue sources, so the city and partners can put some love into these unmanaged spaces," Kiernan said.

This summer the city also plans to make park benches from recently felled trees, and is already trying out a "wood waste to power" electric-vehicle charger, she said.

CARBON CREDITS

Pittsburgh and other cities are also looking to tap carbon markets, which can provide private sector funding from offsetting projects to store carbon in trees. 

Such opportunities have typically been out of reach for the relatively small projects that cities can offer, said Mark McPherson, founder of City Forest Credits, a nonprofit that connects metro areas selling carbon credits with buyers.

This year, the project saw $1 million in a single sale of urban forest carbon credits, he said, a record high since it was founded in 2015.

It will benefit 13 projects in a dozen cities.

The sale included the highest price ever paid for forest carbon credits of any kind, McPherson said, adding the price shows recognition of such projects' immediate benefits to communities.

"It's a huge advance for urban forest carbon. And it will be catalytic in that you'll have lots of urban forest people look at this and say: 'This really works.'"

In Des Moines, Iowa, which participated in the sale, the Public Works department is responsible for about 50,000 trees in streets and parks, said its director Jonathan Gano.

They have taken a beating in recent years amid invasive pests and storms, he said.

The City Forest Credits sale brought in around $14,000 for nearly 1,800 trees planted in 2020 and 2021, said Leslie Berckes, director of programs at Trees Forever, the nonprofit that oversees the initiative in Des Moines. 

The revenue will be put back into planting, Gano said.

The sale also includes another three larger payments to the city over the next 40 years, as long as the trees remain alive and healthy.

Carbon credit projects are likely to be "huge" for efforts to boost urban greenery, Berckes said, noting her program is also using a Forest Service grant to try to expand the approach to smaller towns. 

"City officials probably always liked trees," but they tended to be a low priority, she said.

"Now trees are being seen as a critical piece of green infrastructure."

Related stories:

Money trees: U.S. cities find new ways of valuing urban forests  

'The woods next door': U.S. community forests take root 

U.S. tree-planting push to curb warming, boost jobs 

(Reporting by Carey L. Biron; Editing by Sonia Elks. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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