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A federal agency more commonly associated with its Smokey Bear mascot and tips on preventing forest fires thinks it may have part of the solution in big cities' fight on crime: urban wood.
The U.S. Forest Service has quietly launched a “matchmaking” effort to connect non-profits employing formerly incarcerated workers who deconstruct abandoned buildings in big metropolises such as Baltimore with private companies looking for a dependable supply of reclaimed lumber.
Agency officials say the partnerships could go a long way toward reducing the scourge of violent crime while decreasing the number of ex-offenders who return to prison: About 70% of Baltimore offenders find themselves back in jail within three years of being released.
The wood project also fits the Forest Service mission because it helps keep good wood out of landfills as Maryland and Baltimore officials push forward with a program to demolish about 4,000 homes over the next four years, agency officials said.
About 14.5 million tons of wood in America's landfills every year come from urban areas, according to the most recent Forest Service estimates. That's more than the amount of timber harvested from national forests each year.
“It’s about air quality and water quality,” said Morgan Grove, a Baltimore-based research forester who is spearheading what the agency has dubbed the Urban Wood Project. “It’s also about reducing crime and helping people move forward. We’re trying to help people get back on their feet. At its core, it’s really still maintaining the mission of revitalizing that the Forest Service has had since the agency was started in early 1900s.”