Virginia: A Statewide Approach to Promoting Urban Wood Use

Story by Jenny McGarvey, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay; videos courtesy of the Virginia Department of Forestry

The Virginia Urban Wood Group (the Group) is a state-wide effort spearheaded by the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) in partnership with the Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Virginia Urban Forest Council. Group members include municipalities, private-sector urban wood businesses, researchers from Virginia Tech, as well as representatives from the primary partners. The group formed in 2017 in collaboration between the VDOF’s Marketing and Utilization office and Urban and Community Forestry Program. 

When localities remove urban trees due to storm damage, pest outbreak, development, or for other reasons, they traditionally turn the wood into firewood or mulch, or take it to the landfill. There is an opportunity for a higher use of some of the wood to create alternative products such as boards, furniture, and artisan crafts. The Virginia Urban Wood Group seeks to promote greater urban wood use across the Commonwealth through improved marketing and utilization, and to aid communities in planning and managing for their urban forest “from-cradle-to-cradle.” 

Existing Efforts

The Virginia Urban Wood Group has hosted several urban wood trainings and meetings throughout the state and produced multiple resources since their founding. Events include the Mid-Atlantic Urban Wood Forum: “Applied Practices in Utilization” held in Richmond on August 2017. The agenda and presentations are available on their website. They also criss-cross the Commonwealth hosting urban wood business development workshops to help foster information exchange and develop a network among businesses that operate along the urban wood products spectrum. Prior workshop locations include the Richmond-based Hardywood Park Craft Brewery West Creek Campus and Harrisonburg.

In 2018, the Virginia Urban Wood Group launched the Urban and Small Woodlot Forestry Business Directory, built with funds from the US Forest Service Southern Region and the Virginia Department of Forestry. This interactive tool offers a searchable list of businesses with a variety of services to help communities and small-acreage landowners to manage and utilize their trees. 

In 2019, they produced two videos highlighting success stories of urban wood utilization in the cities of Harrisonburg and Roanoke. The videos tell the story of each community’s urban wood utilization program and highlights how from start to finish, the wood product never leaves the community. The Group hopes the videos help Harrisonburg and Roanoke further embrace their urban wood programs, and early signs signal their success. For example, the city of Harrisonburg prominently displays their urban wood program on their website


Ongoing and Future Efforts

The city of Harrisonburg and town of Woodstock both have urban wood use plans. These plans, developed with assistance from VDOF, lay out a holistic strategy for incorporating urban wood into future planning efforts and are an appendix to their existing urban forest management plans. As a next step, VDOF is developing a template urban wood use plan that other localities may adapt for their urban forestry program. The VDOF Marketing and Utilization office and Urban and Community Forestry Program also are helping VDOF field staff to become oriented on creating such a plan.

The Group is set to train the next generation of Virginia foresters, as well. They hosted an urban wood business development workshop in Fairfield, Virginia and invited natural resources students from the local Dabney S. Lancaster Community College to participate. In October 2019, the Group plans to repeat this approach by hosting a workshop in Blacksburg and will invite current students in the Virginia Tech Forest Products course to attend.

VDOF is sharing their statewide approach to promoting urban wood usage at the regional and national level. The October 2019 Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture in Blacksburg will include an urban wood track to help arborists think through alternative use and how the wood can be utilized internally for products such as biochar. Joe Lehnen, Forest Utilization & Marketing Specialist at VDOF, is developing the track for the meeting. Lara Johnson, Urban & Community Forestry Partnership Coordinator at VDOF, will present on their work at the Partners in Community Forest Conference in November 2019.  

Measure of Success

The Group marks its greatest successes in the new and flourishing partnerships and collaborations that their efforts have helped generate. Each new workshop seems to lead to another business opportunity. Each of these small steps are fundamental to building the urban wood economy.