Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ash borers kill trees, but wood still has life

Town officials get creative in uses for rescued lumber

By Dave Wischnowsky
Tribune staff reporter

Munching its way across the North Shore and parts of Kane County, the emerald ash borer has given people fits since it began felling Illinois' ash trees last summer.

Now, the bug has some people swinging back -- with baseball bats, floorboards and, potentially, kitchen cabinets, rocking chairs and even railroad ties.

The emerald ash borer has killed 20 million trees in the U.S. and Canada since 2002, and in several Midwestern states most of the infested trees have been turned into firewood or mulch. In Illinois, environmentalists and government officials say they want to find other alternatives.

"We've got to figure out a way to make lemonade out of lemons," said Wilmette Village President Chris Canning, a leader in the state's fight against the beetle threatening Illinois' 130 million ash trees.

Last month, Canning began squeezing the potential out of two infested trees from his own yard: He's turning them into bats for Wilmette's youth baseball program.

"It was an easy decision," Canning explained. "I played in Wilmette's Little League when I was a kid, and I've said since Day 1 there are more and better uses for this wood than to just chip it up."

Recently, employees with Horigan Urban Forest Products Inc. in Lincolnshire loaded the wood milled from Canning's trees into a kiln. Tom Royce, of bat manufacturer Bats by Buck in Skokie, hopes that by late summer, once the wood is properly dried, he will have enough quality lumber to produce several dozen baseball bats.

"I think it's an outstanding idea," said Sid Tepps, the director of the Wilmette Baseball Association, which has its players use wooden bats for two weeks each season. "We'll be thrilled to have the bats.

"I just hope they kill all the ash borers first."

That won't be a problem, said Steve Bratkovich, the forest products specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. Most of the wood from trees infested by the ash borer is perfectly good, he said.

"Many people think that the ash borer bores right through trees, and that the wood is beyond saving, but that isn't the case," Bratkovich said. "Basically, the [emerald ash borer] lives right underneath the bark.

"So, once the infested trees are down, you don't have to just throw them away. You can do something with them."

The half-inch long ash borer has been confirmed only in Wilmette, Winnetka, Evanston, Skokie and rural Kane County, but state officials expect it to spread this summer. The insect's flight season runs from May through August.

With a glut of ash wood likely flooding the local lumber market in coming years, Bruce Horigan of Horigan Urban Forest Products said Illinois residents should be aware of the possibilities. His company specializes in turning trees from urban and suburban areas into lumber.

"Anything you make out of wood, you can make out of ash," Horigan explained, ticking off examples such as decorative bowls, stained counter tops and hand-carved benches. "There's no end to what can be done."

Evanston also is working on a baseball bats project similar to Canning's, said Paul D'Agostino, superintendent of the Parks/Forestry and Recreation Department. Officials in Skokie, where the ash borer was confirmed just last month, have expressed interest in doing the same.

The possibilities don't end there, officials say. Canning said Wilmette, where nearly 2,900 ash trees on public grounds are slated to be taken down by 2012, plans to use some of that wood as flooring when its public works facility is renovated. Mark Cinnamon of the Illinois Department of Agriculture said ash wood in Kane County could be used to build picnic areas in forest preserves.

In Michigan, where the ash borer has killed millions of trees the last five years, Bratkovich said much of the wood has gone to power plants that turn wood chips into electricity. The procedure is considered environmentally friendly.

The same could soon happen in Illinois, said Edward Kalebich, chief executive officer of Robbins Community Power. The south suburban Robbins facility is on schedule to become the state's first wood-chip energy plant by the end of the year.

Kalebich said he has been in discussions with state environmental officials about using infested ash trees to generate energy that could be sold to businesses.

Horigan is hopeful Illinois residents find other uses for the trees affected by the ash borer. The pain of losing a historic ash tree can be eased if it's transformed into a cabinet or a rocking chair, he said.

"The stuff is coming down, regardless," Horigan said. "So let's make it usable."


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