New Life for Old Trees

City’s urban forestry partnership with Cummins becomes a model
Mark Ignatowski

Photos by Mark Ignatowski. A new bench near a tree honoring former Mayor Helen Johnson was made with recycled wood from Stoughton. A dying tree was turned into lumber through the city’s urban forestry program and help from Cummins Filtration.

Workers take down a storm-damaged tree in 2011. Wood from damaged or dying trees is salvaged by the city through its urban forestry program.

Crews cut limbs from a fallen tree in the city.

One of the newest park benches in the city is more than just a place to sit – it’s a piece of art that commemorates the former mayor who helped start the city’s growing urban forestry program.

Near the edge of Norse park, a single park bench sits near a tree honoring former Mayor Helen Johnson. The bench, made of reclaimed wood that might have otherwise ended up as mulch or in the city yard waste site, is just one example of how the city is taking a lead role in recycling dead and dying trees and using the material to make functional pieces for the city.

The program continues to grow as the city looks to expand its partnerships with businesses and other groups in the community – including the construction of a solar kiln to dry out the lumber.

Johnson started the urban forestry program in the city in 1993, said Randy Nelson, the city’s urban forester.

The bench honoring Johnson comes from a locust tree that was “rotten, splitting and hanging over a house” near Johnson and Harding streets. After it was cut down, it followed a similar path for other trees that have been salvaged in the city. The wood was sent to a sawmill in the Oregon area, where it was cut into boards.

Various volunteers and artists then use the wood to make park benches, picnic tables, art projects and more, Nelson said.

Johnson’s bench was made by Madison artist Avery Royer. She stained the wood and made a metal frame to support the wood.

Other projects – including seats at the Norse Park tennis courts, a bench near city hall and garden beds at Stoughton Area Youth Center – are all made with wood saved by the city’s urban forestry program.


The program is run by the city with help from grants and funds from local businesses. Notably, it got a boost from involvement by Cummins, Inc. a few years ago.

Cummins employees – led by industrial engineer Sharanya Krishnamurthi – held a fundraiser at the company to raise money to plant new trees in city parks. That “Adopt a Park” program aims to plant trees that will be have multiple benefits to the city and its residents.  For example, fruit trees have been planted with the goal of being able to provide fresh produce to the local food pantries.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has noticed and praised the partnership. And Nelson and Krishnamurthi were asked to present on their program at the Wisconsin Arborists Association conference in Green Bay earlier this year.

“Since then, it’s gotten even bigger,” Nelson said in August while installing the bench in Norse park.

The pair also has been asked to present at the 2014 International Society of Arboriculture world conference in Milwaukee.

Stoughton has used grants through the DNR to pay for milling and other costs associated with the program. Its success working with Cummins has impressed the DNR, said the agency’s south central regional urban forestry assistant, Elizabeth Dierickx.

“Their project really is a model,” Dierickx said. “That’s something that we’re interested at the state level to replicate with these partnerships. Communities have to do more with less. It’s model project.”

Dierickx said other communities in the state have different partnerships, but nothing on the level that Stoughton and Cummins work at. Some communities will partner with utility companies to use lumber for utility poles or replace trees that need to be cut down for new lines.

Future plans

Nelson said the city’s next step will be to build a solar-powered kiln that will help dry the cut boards so that they can be used indoors. For this project, Nelson said he hopes to partner with the Stoughton Area School District. Stoughton High School students will help build the apparatus, Nelson said.

“As these trees come down … we can use them for than just outside projects,” Nelson said.

The city, Cummins and the high school have been working on blueprints and cost estimates for the kiln, said Cummins test engineer Dan Potratz.

“We’re still in the planning stages,” Potratz told the Hub earlier this year. “We have the kiln design laid out.”

The kiln will be built using ash boards donated by the City of Middleton, Nelson said, and they plan to have it put on a trailer to make it mobile. That will allow it to be used for demonstrations at events like Syttende Mai, Potratz said.

Cummins will cover most of the cost of building the kiln, Potratz said, but is still working out details about making the apparatus mobile before coming up with a cost estimate.

Potratz said Cummins employees designed the kiln by combining plans from the University of Wisconsin-Extension office and the University of Virginia.

The kiln will be built and wired by Cummins employees, city staff and volunteers from the high school.

“The big thing is getting Cummins, the city and the high school all to work on it together,” Potratz said.

Potratz said he hopes to complete the project during the winter and have it operational by spring. The kiln might be stationed at the high school in order to have students monitor the wood as it dries and remove it at the right times.

“We’re still working on the preliminary time commitments for everybody,” Potratz said.