The Emerging Economy of Urban Wood
October 17, 2014 | 7:14 pm UTC
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New York Heartwoods owner/co-founder Megan Offner at the mill.

Photo By Photo by Jimmy Pham

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Megan Offner milling a white ash log. (Photo by Rose Kallal)
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Logs recovered after Hurricane Sandy.
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Joe Eubanks, NYH's primary sawyer, re-sawing a cherry slab. (Photo by Megan Offner)

New York Heartwoods (NYH) began in 2010, with the help of Dave and Steve Washburn, Hugh Herrera, myself, and a Wood-Mizer LT40. Our intention was to manage woodlots and harvest their dying and diseased trees to create lumber, live edge slabs and custom wood products for designers and woodworkers. Based in Warwick, NY we are surrounded by the largest contiguous forest closest to NYC – a premium urban market where I had many connections, having lived there and worked in various design industries for ten years.


Our plan to manage and harvest trees ourselves was scratched when we realized how many were falling over, dying and being removed by arborists. Multiple severe storms and several invasive insect epidemics have lead to unprecedented challenges to our forests and communities. Budgets of municipalities and landowners are stretched with the reoccurring removals of downed or dying trees. Landfills across the country are struggling to keep up with the amount of wood waste that is being generated.

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At the same time, people need jobs and communities are evolving to become more resilient. By processing urban wood we participate in creating solutions: reducing wood disposal expenses, redirecting material from our waste stream, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide released from decomposing mulch and resulting from the transport of wood products from elsewhere), fueling the demand for local wood products, and growing an exciting new economy.

According to Stephen M. Bratkovich from the USDA Forest Service:

“In the United States over 200 million cubic yards of urban tree and landscape residue are generated every year. Of this amount, 15 percent is classified as ‘unchipped logs.’ To put this figure in perspective, consider that if these logs were sawn into boards, they theoretically would produce 3.8 billion board feet of lumber, or nearly 30 percent of the hardwood lumber produced annually in the United States.”

Unable to find more recent statistics on the current amount of generated tree residue, I contacted Dr. Bratkovich who confirmed that, to his knowledge, the study had not been updated. Having heard from several tree services that up to 30% of harvested storm-downed and damaged trees contain saw logs of value, I can only assume that the multiple epidemics of beetle kill in various tree species and recent regularity of severe storms have increased the potential supply of mill-able logs from urban trees in many areas.


Due to annual weather events like Hurricanes Irene and Sandy and the arrival of pests such as the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), we have access to more logs than we are equipped to process. Harvesting logs ourselves is labor intensive and therefore, in most cases, cost-prohibitive at our scale. Working with tree services we can have waste logs delivered for free or, at most, for the cost of gas and the driver’s time. Arborists with side firewood businesses sell us delivered logs at inexpensive wholesale firewood prices. On occasion, we do recover downed trees that landowners call us about or, with permission, that we pass in our travels. Our 14’ flatbed trailer with a winch mounted on it, towed behind our pickup, is versatile enough for most jobs. A log arch and an ATV allow us to get into areas where logging trucks cannot.

Community relationships are the key to both supply and demand. Beyond the tree services that provide logs and clients to buy wood, are landowners, institutions, land trusts, the Department of Transportation, utility companies, municipal land managers and local officials. We have found the latter is an especially fruitful connection as they control what the contracted arborist does with city trees.

As most towns and cities are burdened with increasing costs for citywide services, decreasing revenues, rising landfill costs, and decreasing landfill space, redirecting logs creates waste management solutions, reduces storm clean up expenses and tipping fees for debris disposal, and can generate wood for park benches, picnic tables, fencing, flooring and cabinets for city buildings. The ability to ameliorate local issues while creating valuable lumber may lead to municipal contracts and resources that will support both log supply and the demand for products.

Many states now have quarantines on the movement of wood requiring that it be processed locally or wasted. In the case of the (fraxinus) ash species, most logs are still chipped, burned to control the spread of EAB. This has lead to shortages in supplies of ash lumber, even though the demand for the wood is increasing, per the 2014 Hardwood Market Report. Agencies aim to protect commerce, so there are many helpful resources and incredible market potential for sawyers who have their lumber kiln dried to their state's regulations (available through the Department of Natural Resources or Department of Agriculture).

Over the last decade, the amount of lumber produced in the US has dropped dramatically, giving urban wood the potential to both have a greater market share (now 50% under the assumption that the same amount of wood waste is being generated today as in 2001 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), and be a catalyst in the revival of US lumber production. Industry research from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the Huffington Post and Construction Pro Network indicates that the growing popularity and profits associated with “buying local”, the interest of big retailers in the specialty products of small businesses, and the demand for green building materials increasing at a rate of 13% per year, all position urban wood products to be a successful part of an economic renaissance.


Portable band sawmills have a great advantage over large circular sawmills when working with urban trees. Their ability to travel to sites can eliminate logistical challenges and expenses of transporting or disposing of logs. For example, after Hurricane Sandy landfills were at full capacity so many cities and towns across New York State designated parking lots for the staging of logs. Local sawyers were invited to come mill what they wanted for free, and even still, it took months for many of those piles to diminish. The possibility of hitting metal, common in urban trees, is too expensive a risk for commercial circular sawmills. Metal can dull blades and slow down band saw production, but since the blades are inexpensive and easy to sharpen that value can be recouped with proper marketing of the tree’s story and the wood’s character.

Urban trees generally have lower branches and contain metal or other foreign objects, creating dramatic knots, colors, and grain. These unique characteristics, along with the tree’s history, are desirable to artisans, fabricators, interior designers and architects for the creation of furniture, flooring and other custom products. Documenting the tree’s story and providing pictures of its transformation into finished products adds value by making it more meaningful to the buyer.

Read More on Small Scale and Urban Lumber Milling Around the U.S.

Every industry uses wood in some capacity, which leads to a multitude of niche market possibilities. For example, besides selling kiln dried hardwood lumber and slabs, NYH mills custom display pieces for events and retail showrooms as a result of my past life as a set designer and my connections to the fashion industry.

These displays are temporary, ranging from a day to an entire season, so we can count on a cyclical flow of orders and sometimes reclaim and repurpose the wood. By reaching out to my previous networks to see how I could create solutions to their problems (which, in this case, were lessening the amount of waste generated and creating sustainable material alternatives) I was able to build most of my business on personal contacts and word-of-mouth.


As my access to urban markets is one of NYH’s strengths, I am increasingly brokering wood for other local sawyers with a similar ethos. I see that in the same way that marketing and distribution hubs are being created to assist the success of small farmers, and local wood being the next “local food”, there is needed support for the growing number of independent sawyers. The Illinois Urban Wood Utilization team and Urbanwood in Michigan are two wonderful non-profit models of networks that facilitate the wood use chain from arborists, sawyers, woodworkers, distributors to buyers. My interest is in creating a for-profit model, in order to show that urban wood is good business that is both economically and ecologically successful.

As our population grows, so does the amount of urban land in the United States. According to the Journal of Forestry, by 2050 the amount of urbanized areas is projected to increase from 3.1% in 2000 to 8.1%, a total of 392,400 km, which is larger than the state of Montana. With this, the production and sale of urban wood will also grow, and there will be more integration into municipal management systems. Many cities on the West Coast and in the Midwest are already on this path. Ironically, in the Northeast where we have a larger number of forest pests, we are farther behind. For now, as we wait for policy to change, innovation is happening on the ground - one mill at a time.

Megan Offner co-founded New York Heartwoods - community-based sustainable sawmill - that reclaims and processes of end-of-life, diseased, and downed trees, producing dimensional lumber, live-edge slabs, reclaimed barn wood, and custom wood products for architects, designers, woodworkers and retailers. In addition to creative direction and management of NYH, Offner organizes educational programming (i.e. chainsaw safety training courses, internships and volunteer opportunities), lectures (i.e. SUNY-Orange, The Last Weekend) and writes (i.e. Diner Journal, Dirt Magazine) about the work her company does. Her article is republished here courtesy Wood-Mizer Way magazine Issue #93.

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