Mike McGarry, a forest ecologist, was working his dream job on Vancouver Island, moving from mountain to mountain by helicopter.
Yet all he could think of were all the damn trees being cut down back home in Winnipeg and dumped in the landfill.
"I kept thinking, ‘They’re going to chip these perfectly good trees. We’re wasting a precious resource. I could do something with those trees,’" he recalled.
So McGarry, 27, approached the City of Winnipeg with a business plan: he would start a small sawmill and make furniture wood from the ash trees the city is discarding.
"They didn’t take me seriously," said McGarry. In the city’s version, it says McGarry’s plan needed more work.
He went back to the drawing board and got a second audience, this time bringing along an established tree-cutting contractor. "I said I could alleviate the waste going to the landfill," McGarry said.
His salvage plan would let contractors spend more time on the ground taking down trees instead of transporting the trees to the landfill. It would save the contractor money by not having to pay to transport the trees, and it would save the city by not having to chip the trees at the landfill.
And the benefit for McGarry’s fledgeling lumber milling operation, WPG Timber Co.? "My inventory is free," he said. "These are trees being cut down eight blocks from my facility."
The result is a three-and-a-half month pilot project. McGarry works with arborist company, Alliance Tree Service.
It’s well known by now the grim reaper is coming for the city’s tree canopy, cutting short the lives of Winnipeg’s ash trees with the efficiency of a chain saw rather than a mythical scythe.
The city cut down about 1,400 ash trees last year. That’s just a start. There are 100,000 ash trees on city property or about 30 per cent of the city’s urban forest. They are all coming down in the next 10 to 20 years thanks to emerald ash borer, which was discovered in Winnipeg in 2018.
In fact, the city is giving injections to some ash trees just to slow the inevitable death rate so it can spread the tree removal over a more manageable time frame, said city arborist Martha Barwinsky.
"We could be faced with 15,000 trees having to be removed in any one year," she said.
Barwinsky said the city already tries to make use of chipped wood from disposed of trees for things like trail surfaces and composting, but the pilot project extends that.
“I kept thinking, ‘They’re going to chip these perfectly good trees. We’re wasting a precious resource. I could do something with those trees,’” – Mike McGarry, owner of WPG Timber Co.
Before cutting, the city now gives McGarry a map of the trees targeted for removal and he decides which ones he can salvage.
He looks for things like size and straightness — trees must be at least 10 inches in diameter — and any defects like rot or large frost cracks. He marks those he can salvage with a long pink stripe.
Most of his trees are in the 15-inch diameter range but can go as wide as 30 inches, which allows milling of up to a dozen or more inch-thick boards, McGarry said.
The craziest part of his business venture is how he put together a sawmill. First of all, he needed money. He still had room in his student loan line of credit, so he borrowed off that. He also got a loan from Futurpreneur Canada, a lender for startups, which allowed him to get a loan from the Business Development Bank of Canada.
Then he went hunting for equipment. He bought the sawmill locally and rebuilt it. For his board edger, he tracked someone all the way down to Pennsylvania. He found a logging truck in Kenora and he and friends spent weeks working underneath it to get it running and safetied. The forklift was just parked in the building McGarry rented. He got it running so the owner let him keep it.
His complete sawmill cost $50,000. "I pulled off a bit of a miracle with that," he said. He leases a building in an industrial part of Winnipeg’s south end.
McGarry, who grew up in River Heights, is a University of Winnipeg-trained forest ecologist. He is more protector of forests than a dead tree guy, including spending three summers fighting forest fires in Northern Manitoba.
In the first two months of the pilot project, McGarry has milled almost 70 trees and sold the wood to wholesaler, Finmac Lumber. It’s not a softwood like pine or fir that go into home construction but rather hardwood used in making furniture. (Emerald ash borers infiltrate the bark but don’t damage the wood.)
He has until June 15 to prove the project’s viability.
He is already looking ahead to milling elm trees. After all, the city took down 9,000 elm trees last year due to Dutch elm disease.
The city tries to remove elms before they can spread disease. With the ash, it’s a little more urgent. The city has to remove them as soon as they die because they will fall over and are a public safety risk.
Elm isn’t usually used in construction but McGarry is trying to put together financing for a full-scale kiln to dry elm and make the wood marketable. "It makes beautiful live edge tables," he said.
His girlfriend and a friend help him on a casual basis but he will have to hire regular employees if he expands, he said.
"The plan is to phase up and handle a lot more volume for a full tree-recycling facility," he said. "There’s more wood in this city than anyone could ever deal with."
Bill Redekop has been covering rural issues since 2001.
Updated on Friday, May 3, 2019 at 3:10 PM CDT: Tweaks headline.