Emerald ash borer (EAB) need not spell the end of an ash tree’s “life.” The Illinois Emerald Ash Borer Wood Utilization Team has taken great strides toward creating a positive from a negative: that is, to create a marketplace for wood from EAB-felled trees.

“Right now, as urban trees are removed, they are treated entirely as waste. We need to create conditions so that these trees take a sharp detour away from the wood-chipper, and instead, are made into consumer items or otherwise put to good use,” says Edith Makra, Wood Utilization Team chairwoman and Morton Arboretum Community Trees Advocate.

Currently, most dying urban trees in the United States are not harvested for their timber.

But if they were, they could provide nearly a quarter of the hardwood consumed each year in this country, according to the U.S. Forest Service. EAB threatens to destroy the estimated 130 million ash trees in Illinois, including the estimated 20 percent of Chicago street trees which are ash.

The Wood Utilization Team, comprised of 13 representatives of state, federal, and local organizations, received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service Wood Education Resource Center last year. The team seeks to accomplish four goals that will allow EAB- felled ash to be reclaimed.

First, arborists must bring down trees in a manner that leaves their wood marketable.

The utilization team has facilitated two training sessions last winter at Salt Creek Nursery in Westchester, teaching arborists to bring down urban trees with cut sections at least 8 feet long. In conventional techniques, arborists remove trees in much shorter sections.

Second, there needs to be more sawyers locally that will cut and process urban timber.

Also, some sawyers perceive urban timber as undesirable – with unpredictable material in terms of size, quantity, quality, and wood species. The team is surveying sawmills in the state, and has taken steps to help sawyers better understand and consider urban timber.

Third, wood workers and others who purchase wood need to be aware that urban timber could meet their needs. The team is educating wood workers, architects, interior designers, and others who incorporate wood into their products and plans about the favorable properties of ash wood, and suggesting these professionals consider asking for urban timber. For example, team members attended the International Green Build Conference last November, the National Cabinet Conference and Woodworking Expo in March, and other events to encourage the use of urban timber. Team members are also reviewing labeling and certification systems that could encourage the use of urban wood

Additionally, otherwise unusable logs, branches and bark will likely come to a useful end, too. A formerly defunct power plant in south suburban Robbins is coming back online, and will need residual wood waste for fuel. This plant may wind up using EAB-felled ash trees.

Fourth, consumers need to become interested in purchasing products made of urban timber. The team is facilitating high-profile events, such as “Rising From The Ashes, Furniture From Lost Trees,” an exhibition of beautifully crafted furniture made of wood from EAB-felled trees. This show occurs at The Morton Arboretum August 23 – September 7, and then travels to other venues. Also, the team is collaborating with The Knapp Entrepreneurship Center of Illinois Institute of Technology, which is exploring entrepreneurial prospects. This summer and fall, an IIT class is developing a business model that would bring urban timber from property owner to market, and produce profits. 

Although EAB has created an urgent need to develop the capacity for harvesting urban ash trees, the team is laying the groundwork for reclaiming all timber from our ample urban forests.