Timber Fortunes Rise: Boost from China Raises Suggestion of a 'Revival'

The Northwest was largely built on the timber industry's fortunes, but for years the logging and saw mill business has been in decline. Tightened environmental regulations first wreaked havoc on the industry, and then along came the demand-killing recession. According to the Wall Street Journal, though, a West Coast timber "revival" is under way.

A Monday Journal article focused on California, but said Washington and Oregon are also experiencing a timber boom. True? Our sources say yes, although "revival" is not exactly a word they would use.

Carol Johnson, executive director of the North Olympic Timber Action Committee, an advocacy group for the timber industry on the Olympic Peninsula, says she's noticed a telling sign of increased timber sales at the Port Angeles port. "More logging ships have arrived in our port in the last two years than we've had in the last 10 years." The ships, she says, are taking logs to Asia.

Indeed, confirms Paul Bialkowsky, who supervises timber sales for the state Department of Natural Resources, logging and mill companies throughout the state have seen a "tremendous increase in demand" from Asian buyers. (Private companies, not DNR, are the beneficiaries, however, since the government at both the state and federal level is prohibited from exporting lumber. That's why Tea Party activist Clint Didier is trying to make declining state timber sales an issue in the land commissioner's race.)

China, in particular, has fueled the industry, Bialkowsky says. As if to taunt us with its economic prowess at a time when our economy is in the dumps, China has steadily increased the amount of timber it buys from us. From an industry analysis put out in May by The Campbell Group, a timber investment and management firm:

Over the past decade, China's fast expanding economy and boom in housing starts lifted the country to being the world's largest importer of sawlogs and the second largest importer of softwood lumber, after the US. China has increased imports of logs and lumber practically every year for over ten years, with lumber imports in 2011 being 15 times higher than in 2001 and log imports being up three-fold from ten years ago. The total value of imported logs and lumber increased from US $630 million in 2001 to almost US $8 billion last year.

In fact, Bialkowsky says, the Chinese economy got so heated that, in the last year, the government decided to slow things down, for fear of having its bubble burst, American-style. That's meant that timber exports to China, which peaked in 2010 and 2011, have slowed somewhat.

That's one reason why Bialkowsky evinces reticence in talking about a timber "revival." Another, he says, is that the impact of China's imports has not been quite as dramatic here as in California, whose timber industry was in even worse state than Washington's.

Here, the timber business has been quietly chugging on, diminished but not vanquished, sometimes doing better and sometimes doing worse. It's had a few good years of late, but not of the old baron-making variety. "The industry is still pretty edgy," says Bryon Monohon, mayor of the once mighty logging town Forks. "We have some mills operating, but nobody's getting rich on them."

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