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Saving the GTA's beetle-ravaged ash wood (creatively!)

Despite its beautiful colouring, the emerald ash borer has been devastating to the region's ash canopy.
How the TRCA is teaming up with local partners to make the most of an environmental invasion. 
Emerald ash borers live up to every part of their name. Less than a centimetre long, the beetles are a brilliant green, they live in ash trees in Asia and North America, and they leave a dizzying superhighway of larval pathways under the bark of infected trees. These pathways are what kill the tree: feeding larvae ruin the tree’s water- and nutrient-conducting tissues between the bark and the core, ultimately starving the ash tree to death. The insects, which have infected trees from Michigan to Quebec, likely came over on a shipping container from central Asia sometime around 2002.

“It’s likely that the majority of the urban ash tree canopy will not survive. It’s going to change the look forever, and we’re going to have to start to planning for different types of trees,” says Malaz Sebai, Project Manager at TRCA's Partners in Project Green. The effects of the infestation are widespread: Toronto has over 860,000 ash trees, and York region is home to more than 2.8 million trees. Municipalities such as the City of Toronto, Vaughan, and Richmond Hill have been tackling the issue for the past several years. They first try an insecticide treatment, but when the trees begin to die, they become a hazard that need to be removed.

Sebai and his partners have taken an innovative approach to those dead trees. In the past, felled trees would be chipped into mulch or converted into firewood. Some trees would inevitably end up in landfills. But the ash trees that have been infected with the emerald ash borer are different. With the damage confined to the surface of the trunk, the cores can be repurposed.

So, In 2014, Sebai started a conversation. “Partners in Project Green got together with the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, local municipalities, the industry, the sawmiller operators, and the non-profits and schools, and we developed this plan to demonstrate that we can divert this ash wood, and took on these pilot projects”—carried out through 2015—“to show that this was feasible.”

Sawmill Sid, a local lumber milling company, could provide on-site milling, which Sebai says removed the carbon costs of transporting the wood. As a result, up to half the ash trees slated for removal have been diverted into high-value uses such as lumber and raw-edge wood. “We perceive trees as being a resource rather than a waste, so we wanted to find a way to recover the trees for the highest value, which is lumber,” says Sebai. “Mulch and firewood is diversion, but we can do better.”

As a result, the local partners piloted innovative approaches to how the felled trees would be managed. “The wood mulcher would usually get paid to mulch the wood, but Sawmill Sid has paid for the wood in order to divert it,” explains Sheila Storey, the CEO of Sawmill Sid. They’ve worked with both municipal and private partners on ash removal projects, and the wood they salvage has been put to a variety of uses. Much of it is sold for lumber, but some has found a more interesting home. In Richmond Hill, the city eventually bought back some of the ash wood to be turned into local plaques. More was donated to the Waldorf School’s woodworking classes.

"We wanted to keep things local. Our bit in sustainable communities is processing it here and sell it to the local market,” Storey says. Clients like the property management firm Bentall Kennedy used their reclaimed wood to make charcuterie boards.

Sustainability is baked into how Sawmill Sid operates. The company got its first big break when it was asked to mill the Maple Leaf Forever tree, the iconic Leslieville tree that was said to have inspired Alexander Muir’s song “Maple Leaf Forever.” Their removal allowed the wood to repurposed into hundreds of new items, including guitars and a gavel for Toronto’s City Hall. As Storey points out, “Wood is a very valuable resource;” by using local ash wood, she says they’re saving other trees from coming down. “Also, with a portable sawmill, we can keep it local and keep the carbon footprint small.”

Ann Marie Farrugia, the Manager of the Natural Environment for Richmond Hill, says that her municipality is taking a high-tech approach to ensuring that the milling can be done locally. “We have an inventory of eleven thousand trees, and they’re all GPS tagged. We can target specific trees and set those aside for specific projects. We can see where the trees are so they don’t have to transport them that far,” she explains.

As a result, Richmond Hill has been able to provide the community with a variety of reclaimed ash wood, ranging from mulched chips that are used in gardens and provided to residents for free, to firewood for recreation programs, to using the wood in newly built playgrounds. Richmond Hill also produced a video about the emerald ash borer, which Farrugia says garnered over two thousand views overnight. “To me, this is an indication that people care about this issue,” she says.

“Whole communities were devastated, and we’ve seen people react to tree loss. They love trees, so any type of news about how we’re repurposing the wood is well-received,” she says. “For communities that were sad to see these trees die, we felt it was our responsibility to see these trees reused.”

One outlet for the wood has been the Toronto Waldorf School, which received a donation of 240 board feet of lumber from Sawmill Sid. Leed Jackson, the High School Chair and woodworking instructor. “We got a call out of the blue that said the school is being offered a donation of wood, and can you go pick it up?” he says with a laugh.

Jackson’s grade twelve students used the lumber as part of a unit on the history of architecture. Students worked in small groups to build benches—some with live edges, some without—and the finished products found homes in both the school and the community. The donation also sparked a deeper understanding of the local ecology. “They all saw the bore marks. They knew from biology that the living part of the tree is between the bark and the core,” says Jackson.

The emerald ash borer’s impact continues to resonate through the school. “They feel so proud of doing something for others. When they create the benches, they end up creating themselves as finer human beings,” Jackson says of his students. He adds that being involved with the TRCA and the municipality’s reclamation efforts has also drawn him further into the community. “The reality is, when a tree dies in a forest, it brings in light. So how do we want look at these trees? They’ll create new economic possibilities, and so much new light in the community. It’s the integration of business, government, education, and cultural spheres,” he says. “For me, it’s a picture of the right relationships, and the more it’s unfolded, the more I feel it’s the right thing and the right time.”

This feature was made possible with support from the TRCA.

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