Dying Trees Get New Life

Sandra Lupien '15 crafts unique furniture from California trees felled by beetles and drought

By Angela Maria Ting, USF News Posted Mon, 02/05/2018 - 16:46

When Sandra Lupien ’15 and her business partner Sam Schabacker found out that 129 million California trees have died in the past eight years due to drought and a mountain beetle infestation, they wondered what to do about it. Left in the forests the trees decompose and give off carbon that contributes to climate change. The dead and dying trees can also stoke wildfires, which pollute the atmosphere, threaten lives, scar the land, and damage property and infrastructure.

Their solution: create SapphirePine, a furniture company that pairs high-quality furniture design with environmental action.

Why is your company called SapphirePine?
Our name and our mission is inspired by the wood’s vibrancy. It’s uniquely beautiful. That's because the beetles that kill the trees leave behind a fungus that imbues the wood with an array of blue, orange, and green highlights. In spite of the pests, the wood maintains its durability. 

How do you make your furniture?
We source our wood from private properties in the Sierra Nevada. After the wood is milled into slabs, it’s kiln-dried to eliminate the fungus. For our tables and benches, we hand-select each slab and from there, our customers can select their preferences for the long sides of the tabletop, as well as from a variety of steel legs and bases handcrafted in Oakland.

What are the challenges related to what you do?
Running a startup social venture while being full-time graduate students at UC Berkeley has certainly been exciting, but challenging. We’re also early to market, so although we have a formidable number of beetle-killed trees, very few mills are processing them. We’re working through a few supply chain challenges. Our intention is to build robust markets for this wood beyond furniture in order to jumpstart supply and make a difference that is aligned with the scale of the problem.

What’s SapphirePine’s goal?
Sam and I both spent many years working on environmental and social justice issues in the nonprofit sector. We realized we could play a role in helping to find a way to reduce the negative environmental and fire impacts of these trees while preventing their wood from going to waste. We hope Californians who see our designs will be inspired to learn more about the tree die-off and talk about it with others.

How has your USF degree helped you professionally and personally?
USF's slogan, "Change the World From Here,” resonates with me. A desire to facilitate positive change has motivated everything I've done professionally, including launching SapphirePine. I completed my bachelor of science in management when I was 41, with about 20 years of career experience. Doing so helped me to realize that if I wanted to become a more effective agent of change, graduate school was the next step. I'm now about to complete a master of public policy at UC Berkeley. My USF experience and degree opened the gate to that path, and helped give me the confidence to pursue a graduate degree — something I'd never even considered.

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