Stubby Warmbold is an old hand at logging. When he was a boy growing up in Canada, his family owned sawmills, and for the last 16 years he’s run a logging company. With his long beard and penchant for flannel shirts, he looks the part. But Warmbold isn’t your typical logger. Instead of felling trees in forests, his company, CitiLog, takes wood cleared from parks, roadsides, medians and other urban and suburban areas and makes it into lumber, which then becomes everything from flooring to furniture.
“It’s good common sense,” says Warmbold, who has run the business with his wife, Maria, out of Pittstown, New Jersey, since 2000. “If you’ve got a tree you’ve got to take down, use it.”
In the past, the walnut, oak, cherry and other hardwoods that CitiLog salvages would have been turned into mulch or firewood, or even sent to a landfill. The company takes trees that may have been killed or damaged by storms, insects, disease or natural causes, or that must be taken down because of construction projects. Warmbold and his crew of 15 Amish craftsmen do everything from harvesting the trees and hauling the timber (often with horses, because they’re low impact) to sawing logs, and building made-to-order products, all using eco-friendly materials such as non-toxic glue. Clients include homeowners, Yale University, the Pentagon, and the Bronx Zoo, where Warmbold recently removed logs that will return to the zoo as a reception desk and conference tables.
Similar enterprises have been popping up across the U.S. and Canada, as well as Brazil and Australia. Such businesses not only prevent perfectly good trees — many of which are hardwoods that are hundreds of years old, and larger and denser than forest trees — from going to waste, but they also tap into a source of old-growth hardwood that leaves forests untouched. According to the U.S. Forest Service, if the city trees cut down each year were all sawed into boards, they would produce 3.8 billion board-feet of lumber, or almost 30 percent of the hardwood lumber churned out annually in the U.S.
Building with urban lumber also imbues the results with a sense of history, says Bruce Horigan, who launched the Chicago-based Horigan Urban Forest Products with his wife in 2003. Last summer, a windstorm knocked down trees in Chicago’s Jackson and Washington parks, both designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who is perhaps best known for designing New York City’s Central Park. The city gave the trees to Horigan, who is making them into lumber at his sawmill. “I can’t swear that any individual tree was planted by Olmsted,” says Horigan. “But these trees were put there during the time that he did the landscaping. They’re a part of history.”
In some cases, the practice can also provide opportunities for social good, too. CitiLog, for example, offers job training for disadvantaged young people. Through their nonprofit, CitiWood Works, the Warmbolds are building a sawmill in Washington, D.C., where 18- to 26-year-olds will be trained and licensed to saw the district’s wood. “It will be a green fabrication shop, run on biofuel, making a green product, where people will be able to learn a working trade,” says Warmbold. “It’s good for the planet, and it will give these young people opportunities they might not have otherwise.”
Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2007. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.