February 19, 2015

The Urban Wood Economy Takes Root

Q&A with Twink Jan-McMahon, Director, Wisconsin Urban Wood

Q: What are the origins of Wisconsin Urban Wood?

A: Every year, thousands of trees are removed from our streets, backyards, parks and other green spaces due to storms, construction, disease, or insects such as the Emerald Ash Borer. Many trees are suitable for lumber, flooring, furniture, art, architectural design, and household goods. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that salvaged timber generated annually from tree removals in U.S. urban areas could produce 3.8 billion board feet of sustainable lumber.

In 2005 an invasive insect—the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB)—had killed millions of ash trees in Michigan and was making its way to Wisconsin. The trees died, but the wood inside was sound; however, few people were prepared to do anything but turn the trees into chips and firewood.  That is, until an Ann Arbor group of small sawmills, arborists, and others regularly salvaging quality urban logs, rallied to find higher value uses and markets for the ash wood. They began to saw, dry, and sell lumber at a local Habitat ReStore under a shared brand.  Their sales have consistently grown over the last several years. This group—The Urbanwood Project—became a model, springboard, and eventually a partner of Wisconsin Urban Wood (WUW).

WUW began in the Madison area as an informal community conversation to address how trees were routinely being removed from the urban forest and ending up in the landfill.  The conversation was initiated by a local nonprofit funded by a Department of Natural Resources Urban Forestry  (DNRUF) grant.  Interest in recovering the value of the trees quickly grew to include municipalities, educational institutions, recycling professionals, wood products and service professionals, artists, craftspersons, and nonprofit organizations.

With considerable breadth of expertise at the table, all agreed the potential and hurdles for marketing urban wood were similar to the local food movement.  The public would have to learn the benefits of buying local, quality wood products over fast production and cheaply made goods. The group outlined the scope and needs of a sustainable urban wood economy and necessarily focused on marketing, outreach and branding.  The brand and partnership was the outcome of two years of discovery and development through this model of informed group process and discussion.

Q: Can you describe your business model?

 A: WUW is a 501c3 nonprofit organization. We exist to build a model network with likeminded people, to link material streams, provide opportunity for increased collaboration, and build mutual capacity for marketing quality urban wood products and services throughout our state.

WUW is both a product and partnership. Founded February 28, 2014, WUW’s diverse and growing partnership includes arborists, sawyers, kiln operators, finished wood product manufacturers, retail, architects, organizations and supporters. WUW product is defined as wood from trees NOT harvested for their timber value, but removed because of insect, disease or circumstance.

Our growing partnership spans 25 independent businesses in 10 municipalities and includes all sizes of operations, from a one-person shop in Mazomanie to a flooring company named by Wisconsin Business Journal as one of 2014’s fastest growing firms in Milwaukee.  Each partner brings unique products to bear on the brand, giving it variety and a range of products all made from local trees.

WUW partners share a distinctive understanding that trees are most beneficial to communities when the trees are growing healthy and strong. Then, when a tree needs to come down it is not considered waste. It’s wood.  And it is a responsibility to use the wood for its highest uses in ways that benefit the local economy and the urban forest.  This ethic is evident in the quality of our products and services. One has to share this ethic in order to belong to the partnership.  New partners are recommended by formal partners, or by the executive director.  Decisions about WUW are not the provenance of any individual, but are jointly and democratically held among all named partners.

WUW embraces the buy local ideal to increase demand for locally owned, made and grown businesses, goods and services. In our case, the products are also locally sourced.  We’re driving growth in local job creation, local entrepreneurship and business ownership, and developing the market at the same time.

We have a three-pronged marketing approach that includes the public, industry and partners. We already mentioned the need to change the public buying habits; we also want to get local wood into larger venues through, for example, the architectural industry to stimulate substantial demand for the emerging product. There is a LOT of wood. A LOT of it is going to waste when it could be made into gorgeous beams, sidewalls, flooring, and stairwells. The list goes on.

Q: Did you have to overcome any regulatory barriers or other problems sourcing your raw materials?

A: What we have to overcome is “change.” Urban wood is a new product for the public and wood using industries. It is sourced differently and is competing with well-established and accepted wood products and the benefits are not necessarily tangible. In fact, sometimes the most appealing thing about it is that it has a story. Wood that came from your city or a tree on your property is valuable because of its connection to your life. As intangible as story is, it has staying power. Story connects people to the trees around them and lives on in objects that retain the richness of history by virtue of having shared a space and time with the one who had something made from the wood. Whether one is building a stool, a home or a public library with urban wood, the end result will be richer when made with wood that matters.

The nature of our product makes supply inconsistent. We don’t harvest what we want; we use what the forest gives. Even then, not all communities have the same resources or motivated leadership.  It takes effort to use this resource responsibly, just as recycling did back in the day when glass jars were routinely thrown in the garbage. Eventually, throwing away trees will be considered ecologically and economically irresponsible—and simply bad economics. Since sourcing can be an issue, we look for utilization yard options, and solutions for sorting logs and moving material into the hands of those who use it.

Q: Did you turn to any particular individuals or organizations in the Madison Region to help you get started?

A: Our regular advisory group includes foresters, county and municipal leaders, educational institutions (including UW-Madison/Milwaukee, Madison College, Milwaukee College, and high school wood working program directors), recycling professionals, wood products and service professionals, artists, craftspersons, specification writers, retail and nonprofit organizations.  We are keyed into the national movement for urban wood. The movement includes the national Wood Education and Resource Center, DNR UF, Forest Products Services and many others.

Motivated leadership is overwhelmingly the most important part of developing solid local networks for urban wood.  Leadership can come from just about any sector. Municipalities have enormous opportunities to influence the public perception of urban wood and we encourage them to talk to us about what they may be doing already, or what they might do with our help.

Q: How can others be part of this movement?
  • Know the process. A dead tree becomes valuable with effort: when it is properly removed, transported, sawn, dried, fashioned, and sold as a product by a motivated business or individual. There is little to no cash value in a single log until it is handled with appropriate skill and experience, and ultimately purchased by a customer. As in all tree removals, tree owners are responsible for removal costs. Extra steps must be taken by tree owner and tree professionals to process a tree for its highest uses.
  • Contact a Wisconsin Urban Wood partner for advice about your dead tree’s potential uses.
  • Have something of value made locally from the dead tree that grew on your property.
  • Ask for flooring, furniture, art, architecture, and household goods produced with Wisconsin Urban Wood.  Buy from local WUW partners.
  • Help WUW find and develop local markets that will select and use this sustainable resource whenever possible.
  • Encourage your village or municipality to contact WUW to start a WUW network in your area.

Q:  How can people or businesses purchase your products?

A: Folks can check out our partners and their products at  We’d be happy to answer any questions.  Contact Twink Jan-McMahon at or call 608.622.7212.