Wisconsin Behind the Scenes Blog Series: Urban Wood

Monday, January 13, 2020


Wisconsin Behind the Scenes Blog Series: Urban Wood


The Northwoods isn’t the only place you’ll find trees in Wisconsin...we travelled to Milwaukee, where Chuck met up with the city urban forestry crew. Urban trees aren’t fundamentally different than trees in the wilderness; they’re just trees that happen to be growing right along the city streets. Dan Johnson, the crew leader, showed Chuck a tree that had been affected by Dutch Elm Disease.


Dutch elm disease has devastated the Wisconsin elm population since the 1960s. The disease, characterized by “dieback,” or death of outer twigs and branches, is caused by a fungus that clogs and stops the flow of water and nutrients from the roots to the canopy. This fungus depends on the elm bark beetle to spread from tree to tree. The beetle can carry as many as one million spores of the fungus, which quickly infect the next tree they feed on.


Milwaukee’s elms and other urban trees provide vital shade, improve air quality, and lend an aesthetic appeal to the busy city streets. But when these trees become damaged or diseased, they pose a much greater risk than rural trees on the city community and infrastructure, if only because of their proximity to power lines and homes.


We were able to witness and participate in two urban forestry operations: cutting some dead branches from the tree, and felling another tree. It’s a good thing Chuck knows a thing or two about chainsaws, because Dan sent him right up in a bucket with a little Stihl MS 200 chainsaw! We made sure our cameras were well out of the way, and Chuck went to town on whichever branches Dan maneuvered him to.


After this tree was sufficiently cut back, we drove a couple blocks to another forestry crew, led by Najjar Abdullah. This tree had already been limbed and was ready to be felled. Even before taking chainsaw to trunk, Najjar and his crew had connected their truck to the tree with a thick rope, so that when the time came, they could guide the tree down in the right direction, so as not to damage any houses or power lines.



What will happen to this urban tree? Even though dead trees on city streets endanger the people and homes around them, it doesn’t mean they can’t have a second life after they’re taken down. That’s the philosophy of Wisconsin Urban Wood, a nonprofit that educates consumers, contractors, and artisans about the sustainable appeal of urban trees. On our final day of filming, the crew filmed Urban Forest Fest, hosted at Lynden Sculpture Garden, a family-friendly annual festival of Wisconsin Urban Wood members, designed to educate the public directly about the importance of urban wood.


There were plenty of furniture makers and artisans, including Paul Morrison of The Wood Cycle, a shop that makes beautiful tables, chairs, and even lamp stands out of felled urban trees. The arborists of Hoppe Tree Service set up a “Kids Tree Climb”-- where they hoisted the little ones up into the wide branches of an elm tree, with harnesses and helmets just for them!



Dwayne Sperber, the organizer behind the event, gave us some insight into how Wisconsin is leading the way in the urban wood movement: “Wisconsin is a leader, naturally. Trees and forest products are a big part of our history. UW Stevens Point has one of the best forestry programs in the country. So we are all about wood here. I find it very natural that Wisconsin Urban Wood stepped up to recognize and respond to the abundance of trees. And we are becoming the model that's spreading across the country.”


It was great to see families learning about urban trees and how they can give this beautiful wood a second life!

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Wisconsin Behind the Scenes Blog Series: Forest Products Lab

Monday, January 06, 2020


Wisconsin Behind the Scenes Blog Series: Forest Products Lab


Who doesn’t like to break things? The engineers at the USDA Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in Madison certainly do. The Forest Products Lab is a federal institution that does all kinds of research on wood products: building materials, nanotechnology, advanced identification methods, and innovative structures. In the lab, building materials are put under extreme stress-- and not the kind that makes our director Kate Raisz’s hair go gray!


Chuck and the crew met Dwight McDonald, who is an engineering technician at the lab. Chuck helped Dwight set up two different stress tests: a bending test and tension test. We waited with baited breath and cameras on slow-mo, as the massive hydraulic machine pulled harder and harder on the two ends of the wood. Finally, with a loud bang, the wood ripped apart!


Photo Credit: James Edward Mills


Engineers at the Forest Products Lab need to know how much physical stress their materials can take, so they can make recommendations to the public about what kinds of wood products to use. Mass timber products, like CLT (cross-laminated timber) and glulam (glued-laminated timber) is becoming more and more mainstream in commercial and residential construction efforts, and contractors and consumers need to know that these new materials can withstand hurricanes, earthquakes, and even fire.




We couldn’t get enough of this cool wood tech. The crew went back to the Forest Products Lab to explore other departments. First up, the Center for Wood Anatomy Research (CWAR). We walked into a literal library of wood-- over 103,000 samples! Curious artifacts were sitting on every surface, carefully labeled and categorized. Aisles of small drawers full of more wood samples made us feel like we were in a sacred archive.



Alex Weidenhoeft of the CWAR has dedicated his career (since being an intern at age 18!) to the study and identification of different tree species. He and his associates have developed a portable microscopic camera and accompanying software to identify wood. The “Xylotron” is a hand-held device that takes a super close-up photo of the wood grain. Based on certain patterns of fibers and air pockets, the software can identify over 150 types of neotropical wood more accurately than a trained professional. Eventually, Alex hopes that border agents will use this technology to identify wood that has been illegally logged.


From the small, cozy wood anatomy lab, we went to the massive, industrial Nanotechnology Pilot Plant, where scientists explore wood properties at an anatomic level. Nanotechnology is the study of materials at the “nanoscale”-- 80,000 times thinner than a human hair! Researcher Rick Reiner showed us the process for making nanocellulose: using acid to break down paper into a solution of nanocellulose particles.


When you break wood down to the molecular level, it can be used as a sustainable alternative to a lot of plastics and metals. Rick told us that the FPL is experimenting with creating packaging out of nanocellulose, to combat our plastic use. Nanocellulose can even be mixed with concrete to make more sustainable and stronger building materials.


The Forest Products Lab is a like a playground for wood experts, and we were excited to hear about all their innovative research-- right in the heart of Madison, Wisconsin!


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Special thanks to Rebecca Wallace and Brian Brashaw for coordinating our days at the FPL!