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Up In Smoke

Experts say Memphis missed an opportunity when it burned fallen trees.



How much is 1.1 million cubic yards of "waste"? Twenty-two thousand truckloads, ac-cording to The Commercial Appeal. That's how much wood lay in the streets of Memphis after the Windstorm of Aught-Three. It was a case of ashes to ashes -- the city of Memphis burned those fallen trees. Urban foresters, however, say there are alternatives.

"It's cheaper to burn it; the ash goes to the landfill and it saves landfill space," explains Jerry Collins of Memphis' Public Works department. "If it was profitable for us to take it to the pulp mills, we'd do it," he adds, noting that there were far more large trees that came down this time compared to the Ice Storm of '94.

Still, the vast majority of what got hauled off was limbs, Collins says, adding, "It's more expensive to chip and haul than to burn." Any estimation of the effect of such a large-scale burn on Shelby County's precarious air-quality would be hazy, at best.

Scott Banbury, a Memphian who acquired his own saw to mill fallen urban trees -- furniture-quality saw-timber -- says that a special permit was needed for the unprecedented amount of wood that was burned.

"We offered to come out to Overton Park for free to help remove the biggest fallen logs," says Banbury, "but they turned us down, citing liability concerns." Memphis' urban forester, Chris Latt, has been with the Parks and Recreation department for a year and a half and says that any contractor must carry a hefty ($1 million) insurance package in order to work on city property. A year ago, Latt tried working with a local contractor to remove some ancient trees on city parkland.

"It didn't work very well," he says. "They ended up damaging other trees and left branches and brush for the Parks and Rec to clean up." Acknowledging that "we don't like to waste wood," Latt points out that all city departments are facing the same budget crunch, and "getting the city up and running again" after weather-related disasters is simply a higher priority than planning what to do with a sudden influx of lumber. "We're still trying to develop a good forestry plan for our parks," he explains.

Other cities across the nation have successfully adopted a waste-not, want-not approach to urban timber. The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a Web site, "Utilizing Municipal Trees," that details alternatives to burning and land-filling city trees. From cut-to-length firewood and mulch sales to competitive bidding for sawlogs and veneer-quality trees, fallen city trees are a resource.

After Wausau, Wisconsin, suffered windstorms in 1997 and '98, the many downed trees were marketed as pulpwood and sawlogs, returning a total of $78,000 to the city coffers. This is small change compared to the $9 million spent cleaning up storm debris in Memphis; nevertheless, it's "the logical thing to do," according to Wausau's urban forester, Blaine Peterson.

"It makes environmental as well as economic sense to utilize as much wood as possible from our city and county park system," Peterson maintains. Trees that are milled are used for everything from flooring in community centers to gazebos in parks.

Urban forester Cindy McCall of Lompoc, California, says, "Trees from urban forests should never be landfilled. They're too valuable to be wasted." Using a portable sawmill on loan from the state, McCall diverted valuable wood from the chipper and saved the city $40,000. She milled high-quality hardwoods into benches and picnic tables. For a donation, citizens could memorialize park benches with the name of an honoree engraved into the wood.

These are just a few of the creative ways American cities are dealing with the results of downed urban trees. Steve Sandfort, Cincinnati's Urban Forestry supervisor, takes a "just do it" approach. His motto is "harvest city trees for money and use the dollars to plant more trees." Sandfort points out that in large city bureaucracies, it's "easier to get forgiveness than permission." It takes initiative to form a network and plan for utilizing, not wasting, urban timber.

Harvesting Urban Timber, a new book by Sam Sherrill (Linden Publishing), posits that older city trees are valuable and need not be landfilled. Storms such as Hurricane Isabel, which mow down trees on a massive, multi-state scale, can only serve to point out the need for an alternative to burning and landfilling.

James Baker, local vice chair of the Chickasaw group of the Sierra Club, hopes the city and county will prepare for the next storm, by encouraging citizens to keep trees healthy by pruning dead limbs and by having a plan in place to cull saw-timber, separating what is recyclable from what's not. "There will be another storm," Baker says matter-of-factly. A plan to chip future downed trees, turning them either into paper or chipboard, would be a step forward. "We need to prevent excess clear-cutting on the Cumberland plateau," Baker explains.

Mayor Willie Herenton was asked to comment on the need for a citywide plan to use, not lose, downed trees in the event of future disasters. The mayor declined to respond, referring the question instead to the Public Works Department, which issued a statement calling the situation "a once-in-a-lifetime event."

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