Timber companies export logs - and jobs - to Asia

  • A ship is loaded with logs for export in Longview, Washington

    Elizabeth Feryl

SUPERIOR, Mont. - An unusual alliance of environmentalists and millworkers has asked the government to close loopholes that let timber companies export logs from private ground in Washington and Oregon, then buy timber on national forests in Montana and Idaho.

The exemption, allowed under a 1990 law that banned exports from state forests, costs Montana sawmill workers their jobs, charge union leaders and environmentalists.

"It's a doggone shame," says Ed Heppe, president of Local 3-249 of the International Woodworkers of America in Superior, Mont. His mill, newly acquired by Crown Pacific Inland, will be closed and sold for scrap this spring. Heppe wants Crown Pacific to ship the logs it exports from private forests in Washington to Montana instead.

"As a nation, we've got to stop exporting our jobs and our logs overseas," Heppe says. "This Superior mill is highly competitive. There's no doubt in my mind that we could continue running a profitable operation if Crown Pacific ran company logs through this mill instead of shipping them to Japan."

The Montana AFL-CIO and the Montana Wilderness Association have asked President Clinton to ban all log exports. Timber companies are already prohibited from exporting logs from federal lands. The organizations have also been joined by several timber companies in asking the Forest Service to lock exporters out of federal timber sales.

Both Crown Pacific and Stimson Lumber Co., which exports Douglas-fir from northern California holdings to Japan, have asked permission from the Forest Service to bid on federal timber in Idaho and Montana. But under the Forest Resources Conservation and Shortage Relief Act of 1990, log exporters can buy federal timber only if they can prove that their sawmills have "sourcing areas" that are "geographically and economically separate" from the ground that provides their export logs.

Critics say it is impossible to separate sourcing areas for private and federal timber lands in the West. "The entire Pacific Northwest, from western Montana and Wyoming to the West Coast and central California, must be considered one wood basket," says Boise Cascade Corp. attorney Joseph Munson. His company recently protested Stimson's and Crown Pacific's bid for federal timber.

The Forest Service says it will schedule a rare public hearing on the sourcing issue later this spring before making a ruling on Crown Pacific's and Stimson Lumber's requests.

Contributing to the geographical expansion of the timber market is a dwindling supply of federal timber. Montana sawmills had just 525 million board-feet of Forest Service timber under contract and available for cutting at the end of 1992, compared with 1.9 billion board-feet under contract a decade earlier. Timber harvests on Montana's national forests have dropped by 50 percent in recent years, and are expected to decline further. The outlook is even gloomier on national forests in Oregon and Washington.

The result: Federal logs in Wyoming were recently purchased by a Montana sawmill; an Idaho exporter put in the high bid for a timber sale on Montana's Flathead Indian Reservation; and pulp mills in Oregon and Washington are competing for Montana's wood chip supply, says Steve Thompson of the Montana Wilderness Association.

Private forests are also sold to out-of-staters, Thompson says. ITT-Rayonier, a Seattle timber exporter, recently submitted the high bid on 4,600 acres in northwestern Montana. The land was given up by the Forest Service in a swap for wildlife habitat near Yellowstone National Park.

Montana sawmills are succumbing to the increased competition. Stimson Lumber Co. downsized the mills it purchased from Champion International Corp. in November, putting 600 workers in Bonner and Libby on unemployment. More than 100 workers in Superior face the same fate this spring.

Meanwhile, logs continue to leave West Coast docks on Asian-bound freighters. Timber companies exported nearly 3 billion board-feet of timber from private lands in the Northwest in 1992, and an estimated 2.4 billion board-feet last year. From 1982 to 1992, West Coast log exports totaled 39 billion board-feet, enough to load 8 million logging trucks.

"If U.S. mills were guaranteed that logs harvested in the Northwest would be milled here as well, the goal of a sustainable timber industry would be within sight," says Don Judge, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO.

Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., endorses Judge's call for a presidential ban on log exports. He says the Export Administration Act gives the president power to "stop the exportation of any scarce commodity when it can be demonstrated that the export is injuring the domestic economy."

Congress, however, is not likely to ban exports, he says, because the big companies oppose a ban.

"We have other companies who for the time being are in the timber business, not because they are timber people, but because it is a way to make a quick buck and get out. Frankly, Crown Pacific is one of them," Rep. Williams says.

Crown Pacific defends its decision to close the Superior mill. "Fiduciary responsibilities owed to investors preclude the shipment of logs from Washington to Montana," says Tony Leineweber, Crown Pacific vice president.

Those words anger millworkers in Superior who are about to lose their jobs because Crown Pacific can make more money shipping logs across an ocean than sending them to a neighboring state.

"Almost all other timber-producing nations either restrict or ban the export of raw logs to other nations," says the Montana AFL-CIO's Judge. "Why don't we give our workers the same protection?"

The writer is a staff reporter for The Missoulian in Missoula, Montana.

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