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What’s in a fallen tree? A handmade table and a vision for Charlotte’s green canopy.

Helping the air we breathe by using local trees

Damon Barron, owner of Carolina Urban Lumber, says using local trees to make furniture keeps them out of the landfill and helps the environment.
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Damon Barron, owner of Carolina Urban Lumber, says using local trees to make furniture keeps them out of the landfill and helps the environment.

Have you ever wondered what happens to a downed tree in Charlotte after it’s been cut up and hauled away? Wood-industry veteran Damon Barron has, and the answer haunted him.

Much of the wood ends up in private landfills called stump dumps. Barron, who previously sold wood and wood products for 20 years, calculates that 300,000 pounds of usable wood is disposed of each day in the Charlotte region.

Now leftover logs are the centerpiece of his four-year-old Pineville business, Carolina Urban Lumber, which mills them for use as custom-made tables, bars, mantles and other one-of-a-kind pieces. The firm says it has diverted 2.6 million pounds of wood from dumps, locking up carbon that would otherwise be released as planet-warming carbon dioxide when the wood decays.

But Barron is also pitching a larger vision. Local trees would not only be turned into something useful when they die but complete the provenance of Charlotte’s most cherished feature, its tree canopy. Trees felled for development or other reasons, he imagines, would be replaced by saplings that are planted with their end use in mind.

Barron, who’s 43, credits his ideas to a man he once encountered on a sales call to a sawmill. The man carried cedar boards milled from a tree he’d planted at age 6. He would use them, he explained, to build his own coffin.

“I thought it was the best full-cycle use of a natural resource that I’d ever seen, especially in a career of wood,” he said in a 2015 TEDX Charlotte talk.

Barron launched Treecycle America as a nonprofit network of architects, designers, mill owners and woodworkers dedicated to recycling trees. A tracking system catalogs trees by species, age and location as they’re taken down and lists their final use.

An old sycamore removed from the path of a driveway in Davidson last year became a bar at Olde Mecklenburg Brewery. A 78-year-old silver maple taken down in Charlotte became a conference room table for Charlotte Center City Partners. An unhealthy willow oak in a city cemetery was recycled for interior use in city buildings.

“They want to do the right thing,” Barron said of local developers who clear trees. “They want to plant the right trees. They want to use the resource thoughtfully. The economics just never worked before.”

It’s illegal in North Carolina to dump tree waste in municipal landfills. Much of the local waste wood goes to pulp mills that process them for use in making paper, said Jeffrey Smithberger, director of Mecklenburg County’s Solid Waste Management. The county accepts only branches and leaves that can be ground into mulch or compost.

The county is excited by Barron’s proposal to reuse some of the hardwoods it receives, Smithberger said. Barron also envisions a sorting yard to save logs for other purposes, such as making charcoal for local grillers, as part of an incubator that could include recycling food waste.

“One of our problems is that we never know what will come in for the day, or how much material we will get, so we will set the materials aside for several hours until someone can see if it can be used or not,” Smithberger said by email. “We continually process, so our holding time is very limited.”

A 2015 study of North Carolina’s urban forest waste, by Virginia Tech researchers, found that privately-employed arborists reported making use of 70 percent of their logs by turning them into firewood or other products. Municipalities, however, reported finding such uses for only 26 percent of their logs.

“There’s more wood than there is creativity right now,” said Heartwood Tree Service owner Patrick George, who is also Barron’s business partner.

George said private landfills are becoming less common and more expensive places to dispose of logs. Lumber and hardwood buyers normally avoid large logs in particular, he added, because they’re harder to saw into usable boards.

Reclaiming old trees that are cut down because they’re unhealthy, storm-damaged or in the way of power lines or construction makes business sense, he added. Charlotte’s century-old neighborhoods have some of the oldest trees on the East coast because they were protected from logging for so long. That history, George said, gives them added value.

Carolina Urban Lumber has five employees, makes commissioned pieces and sells lumber to do-it-yourselfers and professional woodworkers. Barron has a small firewood business on the side.

Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, a Charlotte-based architecture and design firm, is working with Barron to craft the new uptown space the company will occupy in December. Clients who admire Charlotte’s tree canopy as they fly into town will view it in a new light when they enter Little’s offices.

They’ll see tables made from a 94-year-old oak tree cut on Selwyn Avenue; poplar logs suspended under lights to form rough-hewn ceilings; and 500-pound pieces of a maple’s trunk to display awards and artifacts under a grand staircase.

Little design principal Jim Thompson calls it “the inherent beauty in what might have been seen as waste.”

The ability to trace the wood’s lineage “gives you a new appreciation of what an (interior) environment can be, whether it’s a table in a restaurant or a desk in a workspace,” Thompson said. “It begins to be a treasured story of all of us.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051; @bhender
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