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Fast Money
Article #270 March 2018
By Bill Cook

How much money is that big tree worth?  Most likely a lot less than you think, especially if it’s growing in your yard.

     Many homeowners and forestowners wonder about the dollar-value of their “big” trees.  This is, naturally, a good question.  However, the answer is usually disappointing. 
     Everybody has heard about the extra-ordinary prices that champion black walnuts have generated.  Some trees or logs have been sold for many thousands of dollars.  However, keep in mind that those sales make the news because they’re highly unusual.  Chances are really good that your trees do not fit those specifications and timing with market conditions.
     Here are a few reasons to lower your expectations.

  1. The buying, cutting, transport, and processing of standing trees is more complex (and expensive) than most people realize. 
  2. It costs a lot of money to move equipment and safely cut down a tree, especially in residential areas.  Rarely, is the value of a single tree higher than the cost of removal. 
  3. Timber harvesting is profitable from large numbers of trees that offset the overhead costs of harvest.  It’s a tough business with narrow profit margins. 
  4. Most tree species will not generate high dollar values under any circumstances.  That “giant” white pine in your back yard - forget it.  Maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance with black walnut, certain oak species, or black cherry. 
  5. Most large diameter trees contain stain and rot that are significant downgrades.  Diameter is not as important as you might think.  If fact, in many cases large trees can be a red flag. 
  6. The highest dollar values come from veneer quality logs.  These are perfect, or near-perfect, logs that get peeled or sliced for the furniture industry. 
  7. Veneer specifications are very discriminating and also quite variable.  Market conditions and dollar values can change quickly - sometimes within days. 
  8. Residential trees have a higher risk of embedded metal and other foreign materials.  This risk, alone, will cause many tree buyers to walk away. 
  9. That big tree in your yard will likely have far more value for shade (home cooling) and property enhancement (visual quality). 

     All this said, there may be ways to sell a truly high-value single tree, or small group of high quality trees. 
     Maybe you can fell the tree(s) yourself.  This skill set is generally outside the safety range for most people.  However, maybe you “know a guy” but consider the risk to your home, your neighbor’s house, standing trees, or other property. 
     Once on the ground, then cutting the tree into logs to maximize value requires knowledge about various log defects and the state of the veneer markets.  It’s pretty easy to reduce a $500 tree to firewood quality. 
     Then, there’s the transportation.  How will a few logs make it to a veneer mill, sawmill, or other facility?  Large logs are heavy and bulky.  They can’t just be tossed into the back of a pick-up or rolled onto a snowmobile trailer.  Truckers aren’t going to bother for anything less than a full load.  Then again, maybe you “know another guy”. 
     The best bet is finding a local person with a portable sawmill.  These people are mostly hobbyists and aren’t typically listed in any directory or on-line service.  You need to ask around.  These folks aren’t going to move their sawmill for a few logs, but they might have the equipment to move your logs to their sawmill.  They work for a fee but might waive the fees in exchange for a portion of the cut lumber. 
     Assuming the cutting and transport can be arranged, how much is your tree worth?  Logs are sold in units of 1000 board feet (MBF).  A board foot is a volume 12 x 12 x 1 inches.  Volume tables for both standing trees and logs can be found on-line, and there are different tables for different applications.  A 30-inch log (small end) that’s 10 feet long will have about 400 board feet.  Even at a high price of $1000 per MBF, that log would be worth $400. 
     Very high-end veneer quality black walnut logs might have pricing at $3,000-$5,000 per MBF.  From that rare tree in a backyard, there might be a couple thousand dollars’ worth of logs.  Will that cover the costs of felling, log-cutting, transportation, and lawn damage?  Maybe.  However, keep in mind that this quality of tree is quite uncommon.  Chances are really good that your tree might be worth a couple hundred dollars, at best.  Hardly worth the expenses to remove it. 
     There are certainly circumstances where money can be made from a single tree or a handful of trees, even in a residential setting.  However, this would be a long-shot.  In most cases, a person would be fortunate to have their tree removed for free. 
     Nevertheless, there are organizations and businesses working to bring the surprisingly large volumes of residential/urban wood to some sort of value-added market, especially in southeast Michigan.  The rising costs of chipping and landfilling make alternatives more tenable.  The Urbanwood group or the Sustainable Resource Alliance are good examples.  These markets might range from bioenergy to specialty crafting. 
     Bottom line?  Removing individual trees or a handful of trees is nearly always going to be an expense. 

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