Tree service seeks bigger log processing site in Chapel Hill

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A Treeist crew member carries logs trimmed on the job site to a staging location. The company hopes to expand its workforce once a new headquarters is built off Millhouse Road in Chapel Hill.

A Treeist crew member carries logs trimmed on the job site to a staging location. The company hopes to expand its workforce once a new headquarters is built off Millhouse Road in Chapel Hill.

Contributed

Craig Nishimoto is a philosopher by training but thought climbing trees would be more fun than a job in academia.

After learning the ropes from a tree company, he and partner David Ricks started The Treeist with a dump truck and a few helpers. They now employ 26 people and use their company to teach tree stewardship and support local businesses.

In three years, they could have 62 employees earning $26 to $28 an hour on average, Nishimoto said.

“The approach of caring for the trees and education about the trees has really worked well in this area,” he said. “The first thing that people say generally is … I love the trees. So that’s where our clients are, that’s where a lot of our consultants are, and that’s where most of our tree workers are … because they enjoy trees and love working with them every day.”

They have an opportunity now to expand, if Orange County rezones 10 acres just inside the rural buffer off Millhouse Road, north of Chapel Hill. The buffer is 38,000 acres in southern Orange County where public water and sewer lines are unavailable to limit urban sprawl and promote agriculture and low-density homes.

Treeist, which offers urban forestry consulting and tree services, has outgrown its current location on N.C. 54, Nishimoto said. The new site would be at 6915 Millhouse Road, near the Chapel Hill Public Works facility, part of Duke Forest, and the county’s landfills and planned future park.

A Treeist crew member perches on a branch while pruning smaller limbs from a tree. A Treeist crew member perches on a branch while pruning smaller limbs from a tree. Treeist Contributed

Nishimoto met with neighbors last week and is waiting for a Planning Board hearing, before the Orange County commissioners review the project next year. Urban forestry is a byproduct of agriculture and should be allowed in the rural buffer, Nishimoto said.

“Three years ago, when I looked at the same place, I thought this is where you would want to locate a place like this — away from neighbors, right on the landfill,” he said. “This (land) is not valuable for anything else, but it is super valuable for me, because I’m not going to bother anyone out here.”

Traffic could be a bigger issue. Millhouse Road is two lanes and already busy. Treeist could eventually add about 308 daily trips, although most traffic would be outside the pickup and dropoff hours for nearby Emerson Waldorf School, he said.

Neighbors also were concerned about potential noise, he said, but there is only one house within a half-mile.

Treeist, an urban forestry business serving southern Orange County, has plans to build a new headquarters at 6915 Millhouse Road in Chapel Hill, including two office and workshop spaces, a caretaker house, and a 63-space parking lot and areas for stacking wood. Treeist, an urban forestry business serving southern Orange County, has plans to build a new headquarters at 6915 Millhouse Road in Chapel Hill, including two office and workshop spaces, a caretaker house, and a 63-space parking lot and areas for stacking wood. Treeist Contributed

Wood processing closer to town

The construction could remove trees on seven-plus acres south of a stream buffer, adding two office and workshop spaces and a caretaker house. A 63-space parking lot and areas for stacking wood before sending it to sawmills and other facilities is planned.

The clearing would be limited by stream and property buffers, a 200-foot cell tower, and a septic field, Nishimoto said, and there are “awesome trees” to be preserved, including large white oaks. The invasive Emerald ash borer is already killing most ash trees, he said.

The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission has recommended leaving as much of the site undisturbed as possible and replanting some areas with native flora, plus steps to protect the endangered Carolina creekshell and tricolored bat. Nishimoto expects the remaining trees and forests around the site to filter out most noise and light pollution.

A processing site closer to where they work would also reduce the noise in Chapel Hill and Carrboro neighborhoods, he said. Most companies haul wood chippers and other equipment into neighborhoods rather than haul away the trees, because it’s cost-effective.

That creates more noise in urban areas and wastes a valuable resource, because wood that could be used by local sawmills ends up in the chipper instead, he said, and chipped wood decays faster, releasing more carbon dioxide that contributes to climate change.

Treeist tree service workers use a variety of equipment to trim branches and limbs, take down trees and load the logs into chipper machines or onto trucks to be transported off a job site. Treeist tree service workers use a variety of equipment to trim branches and limbs, take down trees and load the logs into chipper machines or onto trucks to be transported off a job site. Treeist Contributed

More workers, lumber for housing

The site also would train current and future workers and support local sawmills, which are in decline, Nishimoto said.

Tree work is often a “job of last resort,” attracting people willing to do dangerous work but lacking the necessary education, he said.

Treeist already offers workshops for the public and for tree care professionals, including parks and recreation, university and arboretum staff. They could expand those at the new location and add an apprenticeship program.

“It’s fun to have a job where you need to learn 30 different knots and by your own physical effort get in the top of a tree and use your judgment or you might hurt yourself,” Nishimoto said. “It’s an engaging activity.”

Local sawmills could also use some help, he said. The N.C. Cooperative Extension reported in 2021 that 12,619 people worked for sawmills statewide, generating a $3.7 billion impact on the North Carolina’s economy. But the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the next decade could see a 3% decline in forest and conservation workers, who are leaving for less demanding and risky jobs.

A Treeist crew member carries a branch trimmed on the job site to a staging location. The company hopes to expand its workforce once a new headquarters is built off Millhouse Road in Chapel Hill. A Treeist crew member carries a branch trimmed on the job site to a staging location. The company hopes to expand its workforce once a new headquarters is built off Millhouse Road in Chapel Hill. Treeist Contributed

North Carolina’s logging industry has shrunk by a third in the last 20 years, other reports said, and 100 local sawmills were lost between 2000 and 2020, leaving only about 130 statewide.

Yet, sawmills are producing more wood than ever, largely to build housing. It’s just not helping small businesses because N.C. Building Code requires a state-certified inspector to grade each piece of lumber sold to build housing.

Larger sawmill operators keep inspectors on the payroll, said Randall Williams, who owns Fireside Farm & Sawmill in Efland. Smaller companies have to schedule inspections, which can be time-consuming and cost $100 an hour, plus travel fees.

“It really zaps my profit margin, because I’m paying guys to flip boards and I’m paying inspectors to look at boards that I’ve already done,” said Williams, who is working with state lawmakers on a way to divert logs from the waste stream into homes.

The U.S. Forest Service reports over 7 billion board feet goes into the waste stream each year, enough to build over 200,000 homes.

House Bill 295 would amend the state’s Building Code to let builders use locally graded lumber and create a system by which sawmill operators could be trained and licensed to grade the lumber that they produce.

The bill has bipartisan support, passing the state House twice. It remains in the Senate’s Commerce and Insurance Committee, because of questions about how a homeowner would recoup damages if a sawmill produces bad lumber and goes bankrupt, Williams said.

“The Homebuilders Association is one of our allies (in North Carolina),” he said. “They’re excited because it will stabilize lumber prices because there will be less consolidation in the lumber market. You’ll have more local sellers, more sawmills.”

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 30 years.

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