Forest Service promises more cooperation with timber industry

PHOTO/James MacPherson/AJOC
Things have gotten so bad in the state’s beleagured timber industry that there’s no way to go but up. There may, in fact, be some small upward movements in store for 2002.

First, there’s new management in the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. The U.S. Forest Service’s new regional forester will be in place early in the new year. Steve Brink, the deputy regional forester, has made a commitment to work more cooperatively with local communities and the timber industry.

Timber harvests have declined sharply in the Tongass in the last 10 years. While part of the recent decline is because of poor market conditions in Japan, where much of Alaska’s timber is sold, a longer-term decline in harvesting is due to policies of the former Clinton administration to restrict logging in national forests.

Brink said the Forest Service’s move, under the Bush administration, to rewrite the Clinton roadless regulations for national forests is an example of the new approach he plans to take.

Second, Gateway Forest Products, a new wood products value-added manufacturer in Ketchikan, is operating and building its markets for wood veneer despite hardships imposed by financial problems at start-up and poor markets for lumber produced by a sawmill also owned by the company.

Gateway’s success is important because it signals that the forest products industry in Alaska has a future. Confidence has lagged since timber harvests were cut back and pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan closed.

The market for higher-end lumber from Southeast, and for logs harvested in Southcentral coastal forests, is down and may continue that way.

John Sturgeon, former president of Koncor Forest Products and now a consultant, said Russian exports of low quality softwood logs are flooding Japanese markets where Alaska firms, harvesting timber near Kodiak and in Prince William Sound sold their wood.

There have been structural changes in the overall Japanese market, too. The trend is away from traditional Japanese home-building that used post and beam wood structures and toward western-style homes built with softwood two-by-fours.

High-quality spruce and hemlock cut beams from Southeast Alaska were highly sought-after for the traditional market in Japan, but for the new market built with two-by-fours, softwood tree farmers in New Zealand and Scandanavia can sell at lower costs, Sturgeon said.

Rick Rogers, resources manager for Chugach Alaska Corp., a Native regional corporation with major timber holdings, believes the future for the Alaska industry may be in the path Gateway is creating.

In addition to selling logs or producing conventional lumber, Alaska mills can manufacture products that have higher value, like Gateway is doing with wood veneer made essentially from waste timber products.

Some small Southeast mills are already moving in this direction, making wood building components for sale in the Pacific Northwest markets, Brink said.

12/30/2001 - 8:00pm