Tree lover Matt Lagerstrom has a mission: he's cutting down certain area trees in order to preserve them.
As tall trees in the Brookings area succumb to Dutch elm disease or are marked for felling for another reason, 28-year-old Matt Lagerstrom hopes the wood those trees spent years producing can be put to good use.
To give those trees "second life," Lagerstrom has established a custom sawmill operation he's dubbed "Little Brown Bear Boatworks."
"After the tree is on the ground, I try to save as much of it as possible," Lagerstrom explains. "What you can, you run through the sawmill, making high-quality lumber to sell to local cabinetmakers and handymen . The rest becomes firewood or adds to the brush pile." Like much of Lagerstrom's life, the business's name has a unique story behind it. The "Little Brown Bear" part of it comes from Squeaky, a small toy bear Lagerstrom refers to as "his buddy." He found the toy in 1996 when he was out swimming in a lake where he was working. "I found him hanging out in the moss," Lagerstrom said. "I don't know if you can call him a good-luck charm, but he definitely starts a lot of interesting conversations."
Squeaky even travels with Lagerstrom. For fun, the young woodsman likes to take postcard-like pictures of the toy on his trips to show to friends.
According to Lagerstrom, Squeaky has been "all around the world twice."
The "boatworks" part of the business' title comes from Lagerstrom's winter hobby, building kayaks and canoes.
That hobby is the major reason the sawmill business even got started in the first place.
"Two years ago, when I was building canoes and kayaks, I was driving down the street and I saw all these cedar logs being hauled off to the dump to be burned," Lagerstrom said. "I was thinking Matt that they Lagerstrom could become materials to turn into boats. I got the logs and couldn't find a sawmill anywhere in the local area that could help me out." So Lagerstrom started his own. He typically works with farmers whose shelterbelts need maintenance he cleans up the shelterbelt and at the same time harvests trunks for milling and for firewood. He also works with homeowners who have mature specimen trees that need to be removed. Craftsmen need wood
Woodworkers and crafters are always on the lookout for a good source of walnut, cherry, beech or some other, more exotic wood, he adds.
He currently does business in White, at a woodshop in Arlington and with several people in Nebraska.
For the White resident and former Boy Scout creating lumber from once-stately trees is both a conservation mission and an heirloom preservation effort.
"You could make a cabinet out of the tree grandpa planted 50 years ago. The tree has value to you," Lagerstrom explains.
Lagerstrom says growing up, his family's house was "just across the street" from the home of Arbor Day Arbor Lodge. And that beginning seems to suit him just fine. He's now a non-traditional South Dakota State University student working to complete a biology degree with a forestry emphasis.
"I've always been in love with trees," he said. Non-traditional student
Lagerstrom came to SDSU after more than five years in the U.S. Army. A Korean linguist, he was put in the Army's stop-loss program an extended deployment option after the Iraq war began but was released when his contract and tour of active duty ended.
"They came up to me in mid-October and said I was getting out of the Army," he said. "So I sent letters to the University of Nebraska, the University of Wyoming and SDSU, and Brookings won the race to get back to me."
He graduates in May 2010.
Lagerstrom is also active with local Boy Scout Troop 4, serving as the boys' Scoutmaster. The Scouts are too young to be involved in his tree-cutting operation , but they can and do learn the conservation aspect of Lagerstrom's work.
Although he operates his tree service and sawmill on a forprofit basis, those with good, salvageable wood can get his assistance for free, or nearly so.
Lagerstrom says he keeps the cost to his customers down as much as he can. He charges $70 an hour for his work but then pays his customers for the logs he hauls off. He then turns the logs into lumber and sells the lumber.
After he graduates, Lagerstrom plans on continuing with his business.
"I've invested all of my life savings into it., " he said. "And I'm developing ties with the local businesses and area woodworkers ." Heavy investment
The ongoing cost to Lagerstrom, he said, is at about a quarter of a million dollars with equipment purchases, land and buildings."
While Lagerstrom was in the Army, he didn't have any expenses, so he says he "just socked his money away."
"As I was watching the stock markets start to crash last May," he said, "I said, 'I can do something better with my money than watch it go away.'"
And as for South Dakota, he got familiar with the area because his father grew up here. Lagerstrom says he plans to stay; he likes it in this state.
"It's cold, there's snow and the fishing's good, " he laughed. "What more could I want?"
Any resident, farm or city, with a tree that must be taken down can call Lagerstrom at 605-629-6241 . He also supplies firewood to area homes. Lagerstrom reports he's mostly sold out for this winter, though he does have a limited selection of walnut and ash planks for anyone interested .
"We offer all sorts of custom saw milling, so if you need a special piece of wood to make sure that your shop is properly tuned up for this spring, I can help you out with that," Lagerstrom said.
Contact Amanda Palluck at apalluck @brookingsregister.com.