A tree grows in a small patch of earth in the middle of a Five Points South parking lot. Orphaned by the surrounding swath of asphalt, it leans gently to one side, its branches drooping in lazy arcs above the surrounding cars.
If the tree, a species called the post oak (also known as iron oak), cuts a somewhat modest figure, though, that’s a little misleading. It’s actually a survivor, says Henry Hughes, vice president of education at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. The tree is the lone remainder of the original forest — ”descended from thousands of years ago” — that once stood where the parking lot is now. He says, “It’s the last tree standing.”
Hughes often uses this specific post oak to illustrate the necessity of cultivation and regeneration of Birmingham’s urban forest — a term that, as one might easily infer, refers to trees growing within the boundaries of a city or municipality. According to the Alabama Forestry Commission, Alabama has the second-largest urban forest of any state in the U.S., after Georgia. Of the 9.7 percent of the state’s area that is considered to be urban, 40.1 percent is covered by trees — a little over 243 million trees, or 99 trees per capita.
As Birmingham continues to grow, its abundant urban forests are becoming a necessary part of the discussion surrounding its expansion. How do we keep these forests renewed and healthy — and, perhaps just as importantly, what do we do with the trees when they inevitably die? Hughes and the Botanical Gardens have an answer to the former question, while another organization — local carpentry business Alasaw — has a solution for the latter.
“We’re Trying to Plant That Back”
The abundance of urban forests in Alabama — and, by extension, Birmingham — doesn’t eliminate the need for careful cultivation and renewal of the city’s trees, Hughes says. He’s the head of the Botanical Gardens’ Centennial Tree program, which “educates the public on the regeneration of our oldest and most iconic native tree species,” according to a press release. The program, now in its ninth year, is particularly intended to facilitate community tree-planting efforts — usually through collaborations with organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, the Friends of Avondale Park, and the Homewood Environmental Commission, to name a few.
Hughes first became involved with tree-planting efforts 25 years ago, while working at International Paper’s land and timber division in Selma. The corporation, as part of then-President George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” volunteer initiative, began its own tree-planting program. Hughes was placed in charge of the company’s efforts in Alabama — first around schoolyards in Selma, then around other International Paper properties in the state.
Now, in his position at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Hughes heads up an effort that is, by necessity, much less centralized.
“We don’t have a real formal process,” he says, noting that the tree-planting program accounts for roughly 10 percent of his job’s responsibilities (the rest consists of organizing educational programs for a wide variety of the gardens’ visitors). “We just rely on community organizations…. We can’t do it on our own. This is really an education program.”
For the project, the Botanical Gardens collects seeds from native trees — “that’s very labor-intensive and it takes a lot of time and care,” Hughes notes — before germinating the seeds and growing them at the gardens for two years. Then, he says, “we turn those over to the community that’s doing the planting… We go over there and offer some advice, help with a little planting, but mainly we just rely on community volunteers to do that. And then, they’re kind of [the community’s] trees.”
Such community tree-planting efforts are essential in urban forests, Hughes says, even comparatively large ones like Alabama’s. That importance comes down to two factors: Birmingham’s continuing development (which leads to more trees being cut down to make room for construction) and the age of the trees themselves.
“You don’t find too many baby trees coming on” in urban environments, he said, highlighting parks as an example. “You’ve got the big ones in there, but animals eat up the seeds that fall, and the city comes in and cuts down smaller trees to keep the park clear… People don’t like to have a lot of thick vegetation to walk through. Typically, cities will cut out what you call the regeneration of the forest. And then you’re removing the future of the forest when you do that. So we’re trying to plant [that] back.”
There’s a specificity to the species of trees the Centennial Tree Program works to plant as well — the focus is to replenish the native forest, which is typically accomplished by harvesting and planting seeds from local, native trees like the post oak in Five Points South. There are two basic reasons for doing so, he says: one cultural, the other ecological.
“I’ve seen this going on for decades now, basically tree conversion, from native trees to exotic trees that are not from the local communities,” Hughes says, giving the example of native oaks being replaced by crepe myrtles, which hail from the South Pacific. “I think that changes the character of the communities. If you drive through Birmingham’s older communities, you still see 100-, 200-year-old trees that are to me as iconic to the landscape as the architecture is.”
But the changes are also significant from an environmental perspective, Hughes says: “[Native species of] trees are synchronized with the original forest. So let’s say migratory birds, for example, that have been flying through Birmingham, are accustomed to having local trees that break bud at the same time every year, that go dormant at the same time every year, it’s all part of the ecology of the area. And so when we plant trees that are from Ohio or from the panhandle of Florida, they’re not synchronized with the forest.
“There are probably more things we don’t know than we do know in terms of the ecological associations in soils, in forests, with different trees working together and overlapping interactions with wildlife — insects that depend on those trees and the birds that depend on the insects,” he adds. “It’s all tied together, but we’re losing that every time we lose a native tree.”
Hughes notes that the most effective approach to cultivating and maintaining urban forests happens on a smaller scale, which is why the Botanical Gardens’ program is so dependent on communities.
“I think the more you take an umbrella view of it, a citywide focus, it loses its impact,” he says. “You have to have people in their communities who take ownership of this program and say, ‘We want to preserve our trees,’” he says. “Whether that’s north Smithfield, or Friends of Avondale Park, or the Glen Iris Neighborhood Association, or the Homewood Environmental Commission… I think people need to plant trees in their own yards. Often, people expect the city to do all the tree-planting in that strip between the street and the sidewalk. They need to be planting them in their own yards, where there’s plenty of room for them to grow.”
“But Once They Go Down…”
If Hughes and the Botanical Gardens’ efforts with Birmingham’s urban forest are focused on the beginning of its trees’ lives, Cliff Spencer is more focused on what happens after those trees die.
His Birmingham-based company, Alabama Sawyer — Alasaw for short — uses lumber from urban forests for construction and carpentry projects. As building material, Spencer says, local wood “has much more character and is much more beautiful and unique and storied” than the run-of-the-mill wood that typically comes from non-local distributors.
The lumber that Alasaw uses, all of which comes from within a 50-mile radius of Birmingham, is typically taken from trees which have already fallen (due to storms or old age) or from trees cut down by tree removal services at the requests of homeowners and building developers.That wood, in turn, is used to make furniture or as part of local construction projects. It’s an approach, Spencer, says, that provides aesthetic benefits as well as environmental ones.
Spencer, a Birmingham native, first started working with urban lumber while living in Los Angeles, where it had become a minor part of his custom furniture and cabinetry business. But the logistics of purchasing and transporting large quantities of wood through the congested streets of L.A., as well as the expenses required to expand a business in that city, led him to turn his eye toward other local markets where urban lumber might succeed as a business. The size of Birmingham’s urban forest — and what Spencer calls the city’s “renewal and resurgence” — led him to bring the concept back to his hometown.
“I was like, ‘You should be doing this here,’” he says. “‘You should be making use of this incredible material that forms the character of your place, and you should be putting this into buildings, into furniture.’”
The aesthetic aspect of using urban lumber is a major part of Alasaw’s business model. While most lumbermills shy away from using urban lumber because the trees aren’t grown in a controlled environment — ”There are imperfections, there are foreign objects in the material, and they’re not straight, necessarily,” Spencer says — Alasaw’s most memorable furniture designs highlight the idiosyncratic, often asymmetrical qualities of the wood. Stools and side tables often resemble tree stumps, while even the company’s more polished pieces show off the irregular patterns in the wood grain.
But the value of using urban lumber also comes from environmental benefits, Spencer says. “Trees currently only hold value when they’re living, as soil retention, as air purifiers, aesthetic and shade-producing,” he says. “But once they go down, they’re a waste product. And they’re viewed as such by municipalities, by homeowners and by builders and by tree services because there’s no market created for it.”
Most urban wood, he says, is either ground into mulch or thrown into landfills, which can create other environmental problems. “A tree holds a tremendous amount of carbon,” he says. “When that tree comes down, the carbon is released as the tree breaks down. If it falls in the forest, and sits on the forest floor and slowly decomposes, then the carbon is released slowly and regenerates the soil. That’s a good thing. But when the tree comes down and is put into a grinder and shredded, it’s all released at once. It becomes a carbon emission problem.”
A 2011 study by Dovetail Partners, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing information about forest conservation, estimated that, over a 30-year period, if just 10 percent of trees removed from urban forests were used to make solid hardwood products (as opposed to being turned into mulch), the result would be that 124.1 million tons of carbon dioxide — a significant greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change — would be kept out of the atmosphere. That amount, according to the EPA, is equivalent to the emissions of 873,803 passenger vehicles a year.
But there’s a cultural argument to be made for using urban lumber as well, Spencer says. “What is society saying when it throws away a valuable resource?” he asks. “I just loaded up on the truck a walnut tree, which is one of the most prized, beautiful hardwoods in America. I picked that up out of a trash pile at a tree service’s lot. It was being thrown away. So what does it say about a community or society that throws away the resource?”
Now, with his business primarily located at the MAKEbhm warehouse in Avondale — the mill used to cut the trees into usable lumber is just 20 minutes away in Bessemer — Spencer is beginning to see success for his urban lumber business model. Alasaw’s woodshop employees two full-time woodworkers and one part-time woodworker in addition to Spencer, his co-owner (and wife) Leigh, and Creative Director Bruce Lanier — and the company is preparing to launch its furniture line for retail earlier this year (helped in part by a win in last month’s Alabama Launchpad startup competition, which netted the company a $100,000 prize).
In addition to its furniture line, Alasaw is also partnering with developers on larger-scale construction projects. One prominent example, recently completed, is the Creative Montessori School in Homewood, which reused trees it cut down during a recent renovation project. “That wood is everywhere in every classroom, on the ceilings and in some benches,” Spencer says. It’s an aspect of his business — and of architecture in Birmingham in general — that he hopes to see grow.
“It’s my hope that within 10 years’ time, there would never be a building project that would not assess the arboreal value of the property and not put that back into the project,” he says. “To me, there’s no reason why an oak tree that’s coming down should not be factored into the new [building].
“The resurgence of Birmingham, the renewal and resurgence of the South, this is the perfect time for this kind of thing to work,” he adds. “Let’s honor the place and the natural resources that form the character of the place, and let’s make great work and create jobs and become a model for the nation.”
Full disclosure: Alasaw Creative Director Bruce Lanier is also the owner of MAKEbhm, of which Weld is a tenant.