One of the great things about living in Missoula is our beautifully treed urban landscape and the abundantly forested areas where wildlands and city meet. In town we enjoy the carefully planted trees that provide shade and a pleasing aesthetic. Out in the larger landscape, we seek forested areas for home sites and recreation, and understand the abundance of ecosystem services provided by trees. But what happens to these trees when they die or have to come down?
While a living tree commands respect and admiration, are we affording that same respect to local trees after they are felled? Convenience and conventional business models tell us that when trees come down, we chip them and take them to a composting facility or cut them up into firewood or burn them in slash piles. Fair enough. But local and sustainably harvested logs have much greater potential, and mills in and around Missoula are adding value to our local forest resource in exciting ways.
We all hear about the benefits of a local and sustainably grown tomato and we seek out CSAs and farmers market to support the farmers who grow them. Well, there’s no difference with wood, and purchasing and building with locally grown, sustainably harvested wood promotes an appropriate relationship between people and forests. This is the foundation of true natural resource conservation and allows buyers and builders to promote and participate in the stewardship of our forests, both urban and wildland.
Much like the bumper stickers that read, “Know your farmer,” we are fortunate in Missoula to be able to “Know your forester” or “Know you mill.” Home-owners can initiate a relationship with the people that provide them wood and start feeling good about where their wood comes from. Ask some questions like, “Where was this tree growing? How far did it travel? Twenty miles? Fifty miles? Two hundred miles? What street did this maple come from? Why was this tree cut down?”
Missoula’s urban forest is losing an older cohort of planted trees while city workers and others rush to fill the gaps with young trees. These trees should certainly be considered locally grown and sustainably harvested. Most of these trees are hardwoods and yield some extraordinarily beautiful lumber. In fact, some of the fungi and rot that leads us to take down old trees for safety are what give wood the figure and “character” woodworkers look for. In the wildland setting, forest projects take down trees for purposes like fire-hazard reduction, pine-beetle infestations or forest restoration. The result of these small-scale projects on private lands is a healthier forest, with limbs and twigs allowed to decompose into soil organic matter, and fire-safe zones around homes and outbuildings. Good forest restoration work yields relatively poor-quality logs, as foresters should be leaving the biggest and best trees in the forest and taking out the less stately trees. Often these types of logs are burned in slash piles and remaining logs become wood chips and firewood. True, these logs don’t make good studs for graded framing lumber and that’s why bigger mills ignore them. But local sawmills in and around Missoula understand how to add value to these lesser-quality trees and homeowners can now take advantage of this valuable resource for anything from garden structures to tables, benches, trim or just decoration.
Blue-stained pine, for example, is the result of a fungus that has established in a tree, often following a pine beetle attack. Spalting or darker splotches in local maple is also the result of rot from a fungus. Missoula mills have turned these “reject” logs into trim packages, bench boards, slabs and tabletops now being used in businesses around town (see Lake Missoula Tea Company, Romaine’s, Market on Front or the Laughing Grizzly to name a few). Local mills are also great resources for contractors, custom builders and wood workers, who often partner together.
In the big scheme of things, buying local wood is likely more sustainable than buying certified wood. If you are buying lumber in a big box store, you can look for wood certification labels, for example, FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) or SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative). However, certified wood in Montana typically comes from far away and the certification protocols are more managerial and logistics-oriented than concerned with the health of the forest. The resurgence of a local orientation to wood products, like the sustainable food movement, creates a positive incentive for a local wood products economy and a healthy relationship between forests and people.
Mark Vander Meer is the owner of Bad Goat Forest Products (badgoatwood.com) and Pedro Marques manages the business.