Following a heavy rainstorm in 2009, an oak tree keeled over and crushed a BMW in the Johnson Hall parking lot.

It broke the car’s six windows and flattened its pillars. Former University of Oregon Provost Jim Bean ran over to the students gathered around the debris and yelled, “Don’t hurt yourself! Don’t climb in there! There’s nobody in there!”

“How do you know?” someone asked him.

“It’s my car,” Bean said.

When he returned at 7 a.m. the following morning, the campus operations workers were still working on cutting up the tree. They had been there all night. Discussion of the tree’s salvation occurred almost immediately after Bean’s car was totaled.

Within a few months, students in a product design studio during fall 2010 constructed a coffee table and chair for Johnson Hall using the tree.  

While some recognize that reusing a fallen tree for campus architecture is a gesture toward conservation and sustainability, Bean saw a simpler motive: “I just looked at it as a way of getting even with the tree.” 

“All we can do is salvage the logs, and hope that somebody will put forth the effort to handle the logs,” Love said.

Campus’ removed trees are recycled for several buildings – an elm tree that was cut down during the expansion of Allen Hall is now installed in a column at the building’s stairway; the welcome desk in the Ford Alumni Center lobby used wood from the oak tree that smashed Bean’s Beamer. 

Bean said he was unaware the oak was part of the new alumni center until it opened. He went on a tour and someone mentioned the desk’s origin as a tree that fell by Johnson Hall.

“You don’t understand,” Bean said, shaking his head. “That thing fell on my car.”

Despite the UO being the number one school in the country for sustainability leadership in architecture education, an area by Millrace known as “Back Forty” holds a stockpile of valuable trees that were removed from campus, including cedar, oak and walnut. Set aside by campus operations in the event that someone wants to repurpose them for a project, these trees are only sporadically reclaimed.

“Sadly, there is little reuse of the wood from trees we are forced to remove,” said campus arborist John Anthony, who once used a cedar tree from the Back Forty to construct a rudimentary Lincoln log bench, which can be found on the lawn outside Lawrence Hall. “I wish there was more of a demand for the wood, but it can’t seem to gain any traction.”

The salvation of UO’s fallen trees isn’t always the simplest option. A visit to a lumber mill to purchase ready-made lumber is infinitely more convenient for construction purposes.

With a limited desire for campus-grown wood, the campus operations team has decided to slowly wane the number of trees that it stockpiles in the Back Forty.

“We’re running out of storage,” said Phil Carroll, landscape maintenance supervisor. “We’re not going to save any sizable wood that we cut down unless it has an identifiable purpose. By now, we’re at capacity and it doesn’t make sense to add to our inventory at this point, unless a piece of wood has a very probable destination.”

  • University of Oregon Arborist John Anthony cuts into a tree with a chainsaw in the Back Forty.

Deaton Love, the UO campus operations’ trades and maintenance coordinator, says they’re overwhelmed with trees, given the lack of interest in reclamation and the finite shelf life of the trees sitting in the mud. As months pass and trees go unclaimed, the wood begins to deteriorate and lose its worth.

“All we can do is salvage the logs, and hope that somebody will put forth the effort to handle the logs,” Love said.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is that the wood cannot be given away, and not everyone can simply request their own log. Since the trees grow on campus, they’re state property and need to stay on campus. This means they can only be claimed by a university department for campus development projects or small fixes, such as a new cabinet or chair for a faculty member’s office.

Product design professor John Arndt, who led the studio that worked on the oak tree that fell on Bean’s BMW, found this stipulation that the wood from UO trees must remain on campus to be another setback, as students in his studio often want to take home something they’ve spent so much time designing.

“With sustainability being such a byword in the public focus these days, it frustrates me to know there are directives for trying to achieve sustainability nationwide and certainly here at this campus,” Anthony says. “And this would be an excellent way to say we’re going to utilize everything we can. There’s certainly enough construction on this campus — either redesigns, interiors or new buildings — that it could be used.”

Steve Mital, the UO’s director of sustainability said,  “It’s really important [to rely on campus trees], but we have to keep it in perspective. The amount of wood that we use in total so far outweighs what we grow and harvest ourselves.” Mital likens using fallen trees to someone growing their own tomatoes — valuable, but not always all-encompassing. 

“Most people who have a garden probably recognize that they still buy most of their food throughout the year from a supermarket,” he said.

Repurposing campus lumber is more time-consuming, expensive and involves more steps than simply visiting a lumber mill. Since the campus lacks equipment to mill a tree, an outside source — such as Urban Lumber in Springfield — needs to be contracted for drying and cutting the tree.

Previously, the Back Forty trees were cut into firewood for low-income families and donated to a local non-profit organization. This partnership soon dissolved since the organization didn’t consistently retrieve the wood.

The 100-year-old California Incense Cedar that kissed Fenton Hall’s top floor in December 2015 was cut into sizable chunks and relocated to the Back Forty. Since its widely publicized fall, many inquiries from the campus and community have been made as to the tree’s ultimate fate, which may be intertwined with the forthcoming Chapman Hall remodel.

“We’re in the middle of the process of the [Fenton Hall] cedar,” said Carroll. “Hopefully it’ll find a home, but it’s far from guaranteed.”

The UO doesn’t have any directive to rely on campus lumber stored in the Back Forty (and such a policy would be difficult to enforce). And since there’s no obligation for the UO – nor its construction contractors – to claim any trees from the lot, they’re just stuck in the space Anthony calls “tree limbo.”

Follow Emerson Malone on Twitter @allmalone

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