Ash trees still have value after tree-killing beetle attacks

By The Associated Press
Toledo, OH (July 20, 2007)- Ash trees are being turned into baseball bats for Little Leaguers, park benches, and baby furniture as cities around the Midwest try to get rid of millions of trees killed by a paper clip-size beetle. Because the beetle bores only a half-inch under the bark, nearly all the wood is usable. But the trees will die within a few years and those that pose a hazard must be cut down.


The emerald ash borer has infested about 25 million trees, mostly in Michigan. The pest also has been found in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, and Pennsylvania since it was first discovered in the United States five years ago. Federal agriculture officials say the ash borer could spread to the east-central United States within the next two decades.
“We wanted to get value out of them before we lost them,” said Steve Gruner, director of the Sandusky County Park District in Ohio where ash trees were used to renovate a historic barn. Workers in Monroe, Mich., built park benches, picnic tables and sign posts. Ash floors and paneling are being installed in a library in Ann Arbor, Mich. In Michigan, where the ash borer first hit, most cities had little time to react because the pest went undetected for so long.
Only a few cities, however, are preparing for disposal of the dead trees, and most trees still end up as fireword or mulch. Most of the trees were ground into mulch for homeowners and chips for a wood-burning power plant in Flint – 300,000 tons of wood were sent to the plant in about one year, said Jessica Simons, of the Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation and Development Council.
The organization, funded by the U.S. Forest Service, wants cities to do more with the trees by connecting municipal leaders with sawmill owners and other businesses that need wood. “We generate a lot of wood in urban areas and we generally treat it as waste,” Simons said.
There are limits on ash, though. In most areas where the pest has spread, ash wood can’t be moved out of the area unless it is kiln-dried or fumigated. Ash isn’t a highly coveted wood, but it is used to make furniture, flooring, railroad ties, and baseball bats.
Brian Colter, the city forester in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., has a collection of ash-made items in his office, including coasters and a coffee mug. A bench inside City Hall came from the first tree the city cut down in 2002. “It’s mostly for nostalgic reasons,” Colter said. “Our utilization of ash wood is nominal compared with the number of ash trees we’re taking down.”
Kathy Hawley-Herzog is turning her 80-foot tall ash tree that shaded a backyard patio in the Detroit suburb into a banister and chair rail for her family’s cottage in northern Michigan. Her husband, a woodworker, plans to make baseball bats, too. “We’ve got enough to keep him busy the rest of his life,” she said. Their project is strictly for sentimental reasons. It has cost them $1,000 just to mill the wood, and it will be much more to finish the projects.
Not all trees are cut out for lumber. “Most things will go to mulch, firewood and wood chips,” said Drew Todd, urban forestry coordinator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Trees that grow in backyards and along streets have low branches or nails driven into the trunks that make the wood less valuable. Most sawmills want long, straight trees. But there is a market with those who specialize in custom work.
“Almost every tree is usable in some form,” said Bruce Horigan, who owns Horigan Urban Forest Products in Glenview, Ill. “These trees are coming down anyway.” He’s turning ash into baseball bats for Little Leaguers in Wilamette and Evanston, two Chicago suburbs where the ash borer has been found.
Urban sawmill owners say the bigger problem is finding a market for their products. “This isn’t something that will be sold in big amounts, but it can be sold,” said Lon Ullmann, who runs Ullmann Urban Sawmill in Troy, Mich. The business started about a year ago to process infested ash trees. It has made cabinets and sold the wood to a man making baby furniture. Getting a steady supply of wood to the mills is one of the challenges. The costs of transporting ash trees to a sawmill can outweigh the value of the wood.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that states and cities could spend $7 billion over the next 25 years cleaning up and replacing ash trees.
Related Resources:
Journal & Courier
Southeast Michigan Resource Conservation and Development Council
Horigan Urban Forest Products