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That's timber, not trash

A Santa Barbara man crafts furniture out of toppled city trees that

January 05, 2009|Steve Chawkins

It's a sad truth of the urban landscape: Today's street tree is tomorrow's mulch.

But in the foothills of Santa Barbara, a former stuntman and onetime sea-urchin diver named Rob Bjorklund turns fallen city trees into flooring, mantels, plaques and massive, irregularly shaped conference tables that appear to be suited for a wizard's laboratory.

He uses oaks toppled by storms; eucalyptuses leveled by bulldozers; trees taken down for being too old, too sick, too close to foundations, too hard on sidewalks. Many would otherwise be cut for firewood or buried in a landfill.

"All these awesome logs!" said Bjorklund, a rangy 52-year-old who tends to sprinkle his conversation with exclamation points when he talks about wood. Part of a growing nationwide movement to reuse urban trees, he operates a sawmill on a rugged 90-acre spread that has been in his family for four generations.

On any given day, he said, about 20 trees fall to disease or development in Santa Barbara alone, and one or two of them are valuable enough to recycle. According to some studies, fallen urban trees can provide as much as 30% of all the lumber used in the U.S.

"People think, 'When I want lumber, I'll go to the lumberyard,' " said Eric Oldar, a retired California forestry official who helped start the state's urban wood recycling program in the 1990s. "They don't perceive the trees in their yards as part of a forest."

Bjorklund doesn't cut trees down; he saws them into boards or slabs after they've been felled. A jumble of trunks, stumps and huge limbs sits in an arroyo on his ranch, left by tree-trimmers eager to avoid fees at municipal dumps. On occasion, Bjorklund, who wears a sweat-stained hat with a homemade rattlesnake band, heads for town in an old truck to retrieve dead trees he's heard about from arborists or friends.

"A commercial sawmill won't touch them because of the impurities," he said. "There are a lot of strange things in the urban forest -- nails and barbed wire, bolts that shatter your saw blade."

From a great old oak in Montecito, Bjorklund extracted a rusty wire cable and a beehive still dripping with honey and wax. He also found a grapefruit-size rock that had been inserted deep in a hole -- Bjorklund figures a boy did it -- and swallowed up by wood decades ago. Finally, a rat ran from the trunk as the whirring blade bore down.

"It was just a battle," he said.

Similar struggles go on across the country.

At the home of a corporate chief executive in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Sam Sherrill was part of a crew that set off explosives to blow apart a downed oak 6 feet across, making it easier to cut the wood.

"It was a weird thing to do, but I'm glad we did it," said Sherrill, a retired professor and author of a guide called "Harvesting Urban Timber." "We got beautiful, one-of-a-kind boards that are 'book-matched,' or mirror images of each other. Among other things, the family now has two terrific tables that are 8 inches thick. It'll mean something to them."

Throughout the Midwest, millions of street trees have been rendered into arboreal road kill by an unrelenting bug called the emerald leaf borer. More and more, the fallen ash trees have drawn craftsmen who turn them into furniture so elegant that some of it is on display in a traveling exhibition put together by the Chicago Furniture Designers Assn.

In California, state officials who wanted to keep massive tree trunks out of crowded landfills spurred the movement to resurrect dead trees.

With a sawmill on permanent loan from the state, Palomar College teaches woodworking students how to build fine furniture from San Diego-area trees that would otherwise have been destined for the chipper. Residents can get a tax deduction by giving the community college suitable trees that are dead or dying.

In El Cajon, the Taylor Guitar Co. snatched up 15 tons of a centuries-old tulip poplar from a Maryland landfill, the partial remains of a so-called Liberty Tree taken down on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis. Fragments from the tree -- which shaded a gathering spot for irate colonists before the American Revolution -- are used in a line of Taylor guitars.

A few local governments also salvage toppled trees. In Lompoc, parks and urban forestry manager Cindy McCall said the city annually saves $100,000 in dumping fees by using native wood in its bleachers, benches, signs, City Hall seating areas and some of its workers' desks -- including her own.

"Why should we clear-cut the Amazon when we can work toward using the woods we have?" she asked.

Still, mahogany from Brazil can be an easier sell than eucalyptus from Goleta.

The streets deliver a dizzying variety of species, but not enough at any one time to guarantee the uniform appearance offered by commercial growers.

That cultivated tidiness frustrates Bjorklund, who sold portable sawmills before starting his business -- Local Wood -- two years ago.

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