Sustainable Wood Recovery Initiative and MSU Shadows Collection

We all have an emotional connection to MSU trees… whether it’s tailgating under their shade or strolling to class beneath a breathtaking autumn canopy. Our memories of MSU are forever linked to the verdant landscape. 

Through the MSU Shadows Collection, you can take these cherished memories of campus home with you. The MSU Shadows Collection partners with Michigan artisans to repurpose campus trees into handmade, heirloom-quality works of art. Find live-edge furniture, diploma frames, engravings, executive pens and more products at the MSU Shadows Collection website.


Dan Brown, sustainable bioproducts specialist
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Tri-leg table with MSU Shadows logo


The MSU Shadows Collection is a program of the Sustainable Wood Recovery Initiative, SWRI. In the past, when trees were removed from campus due to decline, safety concerns, storm damage or construction, they were converted into wood chips, used as biofuel or sent to a landfill. All of these end uses released stored carbon into the atmosphere. Now, through the SWRI, these trees are transformed into one-of-a-kind works of art, storing their carbon for generations of use as unique, handcrafted pieces of MSU history. 

The SWRI promotes environmental responsibility and creates an enclosed loop of sustainability. After trees are removed by campus arborists, they undergo a three-month process of milling and drying, the lumber is categorized and then delivered to artisans to be created into products. Finally, proceeds from sales funds new trees being planted throughout campus, completing the cycle and providing an even greener campus. 


MSU students gain hands-on learning experiences working with urban wood management, processing, repurposing and marketing. Students like Urban and Regional Planning senior Andy Netter have gained new opportunities and life skills through the SWRI. “It opened up a whole new interest of mine,” Netter says. “I’d never used a chainsaw extensively. I’d never used a sawmill. It was a lot of learning on your feet and trying to keep up.” 

Netter says being mentored throughout this experience with the SWRI gave him leadership qualities that he can apply to any position. He learned how to adapt to new situations, schedule and complete projects and communicate professionally. “Just being able to work with your hands is a great opportunity. It’s something I realize now as I’m working at a desk for the past year or so, that I miss being able to get out and create things,” he says. Netter says it also taught him to look for alternative uses for our current resources, whether that’s in his current position with DTE Energy in neighborhood revitalization or his future career. “It’s about taking something that is thought to no longer be of benefit to the community and turning it into something that can be a long-term benefit for a whole number of people,” he says. 

The SWRI is also utilized in the classroom and the community for activities on urban wood management and utilization. Wood recovery practices are taught in MSU courses: Forestry Field Methods, Applied Forest Ecology: Silviculture, Renewable Wood Products and Introduction to Forestry. In the future, educational programming will also include an Urban Wood Utilization class, which will take students through the whole process of log recovery. Students will learn the reason that urban trees are removed, how to process the logs for maximum value, determining the best use of a particular piece of lumber, and marketing urban wood products. The portable wood mill is also used as an outreach tool with groups such as The Greening of Detroit to demonstrate how urban trees can be prepared and maximized for lumber production. 


There are more than 30,000 trees on campus and some of them are greater than 250 years old, says Frank Telewski, professor of plant biology and curator of the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum at MSU. Because MSU is an international educational institution, many rare trees were planted on campus. “We have wood species that you won’t find anywhere else,” says Dan Brown, sustainable bioproducts specialist. Each item in the Shadows Collection is one of a kind and tells a unique story about MSU history, including markings from lightning strikes and maple syrup tap holes. 

The MSU Shadows Collection celebrates the diversity of these trees and showcases their distinctive qualities. “Every piece of wood looks different. Sometimes they have character marks that you can turn into something beautiful. We’ve kept cracks in some of the tables and closed them with Dutchman butterfly (joints),” says Amy Gless, artisan and owner of GlessBoards. Preserving campus trees retains that history and allows you to take a piece of it with you.


The SWRI began in 2014 and is a project of MSU Forestry, Landscape Services, Surplus Store and W. J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum. It is an interdisciplinary effort to: develop a recovery and repurpose system for campus trees, increase urban wood educational opportunities for students, produce lumber and create products that provide economic, environmental and social benefits to the greater MSU community.

The MSU Shadows Collection can be seen throughout campus. Shadows wood was used to craft  countertops in Sparty’s Cabin, MSU’s first tiny house build. The collection is also improving the permanent structures within MSU. Now, anyone who visits the Natural Resources Building is welcomed by live-edge benches. These provide visitors with a space to study, share ideas and build community. Finally, Shadows wood is being used in community outreach and engagement activities. Recently, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum partnered with the SWRI to make tree-ring art prints and teach children about the age and life of trees. 

The SWRI reaches beyond MSU to provide employment opportunities to Michigan artisans. Program partnerships include 2nd Chance Wood Company, GlessBoards, Urban Ashes, Flowerday Crafts, Nathan Shaver, and Pete Jordan (wood turner and Lansing School teacher). The SWRI invested more than $35,000 in employing Michigan artisans from 2014-2015. The SWRI will continue to increase collaborative and outreach efforts to promote urban wood recovery throughout Michigan and beyond.