Value Recovery from Stormwise Roadside Tree Management

During last summer’s Emerald Ash Borer Survey I drove along River Road in Killingworth somewhat amused by signage. A tree crew contracted to the power company had recently performed some right-of-way maintenance that included tree trimming and removals. The amusing signage indicated possession (or not) of the wood material left behind. “Don’t touch this wood!”, “Spoken for” and “Please!!! Take this Wood!!! Free!!” and variations thereof were all in evidence. Such scenes are not uncommon where power right-of-ways have been maintained. What is interesting is that all these signs also subtly indicate value, to someone, who might want to burn it or sell it or use it as a chopping block. Even the homeowner who wants to give the wood away reminds us that it is Free! Acknowledging that it has value and they do us a favor by letting us haul it away.

Trees, as we know, have a very real, though non-monetary value in the landscape, in both urban and rural settings. Trees, of course also can have a monetary value as ornamentals or as a source of raw material for wood products. In one setting a tree might involve a substantial expense to have removed and in another setting someone might pay real money for the privilege of removing trees. The wood itself might not be very different between a red oak in a forest setting and a red oak next to the road, but the cost of time, special handling, techniques and equipment put the roadside tree in the expense column as regards its hypothetical removal. But if the wood itself is not so different should the fact that someone paid money to have a tree safely put on the ground negate its value and potential usefulness as wood?

Fact is, while I love trees, I also love wood. And things made from wood. And I hate to see good wood go to waste. Some of our roadside trees have outstandingly beautiful wood. Efforts investigating urban wood value recovery and some business models producing high-end products are taking advantage of this fact, a prime example being Connecticut’s own City Bench, Inc. (web link?) So a question we have begun to examine at UConn has to do with how we might utilize and recover value from trees designated for harvest in a Stormwise-scale roadside forest management operation.

If we set out to select the best, most promising trees of various ages and species, at the optimum spacing for healthy growth, wind resilience and future management in our roadside forest strip, then conversely, we are in turn designating some trees for removal to provide the growing space for our desirable trees. I know gardeners who do this kind of thing all the time when they thin carrots and pull weeds. The difference is that while weeds get turned into compost, trees can be turned into all sorts of useful items depending on size, species and quality. However, if a silvicultural treatment implemented in a roadside forest strip is not connected to a larger harvest in an adjacent stand, economies of scale can impede utilization and value recovery by means of traditional harvesting methods.

A Stormwise treatment prescription applied, for example, to 400 feet of roadside, 100 feet deep impacts only 1 acre of land, so roadside management involving only the immediate roadside forest would not involve a lot of acreage. Traditional timber harvesting businesses with equipment typically designed to operate efficiently on 50 or 100 forested acres would not likely be interested such a small area or volume of wood. So suggesting Stormwise prescriptions for roadside woodlands where no adjacent timber harvesting is planned requires options for scale-appropriate strategies, equipment and methods for implementation, utilization and value recovery. To that end, micro-scale harvesting trials at UConn Forest testing small-scale equipment, value-added operations and small-volume marketing strategies are underway as part of the Stormwise initiative.

The research site we have on the UConn Forest Fenton Tract is literally a 400 ft. by 100 ft. 1-acre strip along the pump house power line right-of way. (See photo _)The crown thinning implemented there used a combination of arboricultural and small-scale silvicultural methods. A tree crew equipped with a bucket truck removed designated trees exhibiting a risk of impact to the power lines. A bit deeper into the woods directional felling techniques as taught by the Game of Logging chain saw classes were applied in felling designated interior trees. Trees were sectioned into sawlogs and firewood logs and pulled from the woods using a light rig consisting of the 4-wheel-drive RTV and trailing arch, one log at a time. (See photo _) Firewood was split and stacked for sale this fall. Two loads of logs were sorted by species and grade and sold roadside. Other logs were sawn on site into various lumber products using a small portable bandsaw mill. This material is drying and will be offered for sale in small quantities. (See photo _)

Recognizing that a product does not really have any real dollar value until there is a willing customer, we estimate for this operation that we almost broke even between the cost of implementation and the products recovered. An interesting observation was the difference in approach taken between the forest crew and the arborist crew. In the first case each tree felled was assessed and viewed as a collection of various products. The skill with which the tree was sectioned for grade and accurate lengths determined its ultimate marketable value. The arborist crew was rightly and primarily concerned with the safest way to remove the tree without damaging infrastructure, but also with no regard to potential product use. The arborist crew was very interested to learn that a section of trunk left just a bit longer could be a marketable log or a cut made on just the other side of a knot might double a log’s dollar value. Sharing skill sets between and among these woods and tree professionals will have real potential in wood value recovery under Stormwise.

Other value-added activities remain under investigation. Producing lumber on the portable band mill is satisfying and rewarding, but it also requires specialized skills for best value recovery. Research is underway to assess the potential and capacity of portable band-saw mills in CT to play a role in small-volume wood utilization. We are also experimenting with a solar powered dry kiln. Results of these activities will be reported at a future date.

I would like to think that local businesses and markets could develop and grow around the idea of local wood products. Increased awareness and interest, sound information and realistic options made available and fostering education and skill development are among the positive outcomes possible under this initiative. For all the emphasis on high technology in education today, working with an ancient material like wood still remains an application of science, technology, engineering and math.