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Too Much Wood

Alaskan Logging May Lack Market

The Bush administration recently stoked their hopes [in the town of Ketchikan, Alaska], and infuriated environmentalists, by opening 330,000 acres of Tongass National Forest, old-growth rain forest and marshland the size of West Virginia, to logging roads.

But few, certainly not federal or state officials, bother to say the traditional debate between jobs and the environment is almost beside the point. Global timber markets have undergone fundamental shifts, producing a glut. Logging costs in southeast Alaska historically are much higher than in other countries, making profits elusive at best.

Economists and others who study the Northwest timber industry say they doubt that companies returning to the Tongass' stands of old-growth hemlock, cedar and spruce will find buyers willing to pay enough to keep local loggers in business.

This is symptomatic of the bizarre disconnect between natural resource politics and economics. The timber market is glutted, yet the federal government continues to throw more trees at it, selling logging rights in national forests for a song in order to meet timber use quotas and pushing for logging as a solution to wildfire. This perhaps makes sense from the point of view of the individual logging company -- you can't reduce how much wood the other guys are cutting, so your only strategy is to cut lots more and hope that you can make up in volume and market share what you lose by glutting the market. But it's not clear why the timber industry as a whole would be looking to expand its cutting.


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