Smaller cuts, niche markets could help timber

My turn

Posted: Thursday, January 25, 2001

Having been fortunate enough to reach an age approaching senility while still breathing, I have been able to accumulate a vast store of opinions, the majority of which are probably either ill-advised or just plain wrong. The benefit of the foregoing, however, is that I don't have to clutter my mind with the opinions of the others (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, et. al.).

However, having a business in Southeast Alaska, the exception I make to the above is your fine publication (I do enjoy reading it) and I would like to offer a comment or two on your recent editorial on the Tongass (Jan. 7).

A bit of background first.

My initial introduction to Southeast was in 1951 when I spent the summer working on a boat attached to one of a group of salmon canneries my family owned. Shortly thereafter, I spent the next eight years of my life working in the "oil patch" (1 1/2 years roughnecking on an oil rig, two years as a pumper, three years drilling and completing wells before finally moving into the home office).

To my perhaps uneducated eye, the Alaska timber industry splits into two parts. The profitable and the unprofitable.

The profitable is led by those who cut and export the raw material basically untouched. The unprofitable has been those who attempted some processing of the resource (pulp, for example) before it left our shores. However, the processed products needed government subsidies to make them economically viable.

In either case, the land was used and it will be a long time (100-plus years?) before it can be used again for the same purpose.

I know we can't grow wood fiber in Alaska as efficiently as can be done in other parts of the world (milder climates, better soil conditions, etc.). I don't know why we can't take certain of our tree species (cedar, for instance) and produce end products in Alaska that can be competitively exported.

U.S. agriculture is, of course, replete with history of subsidization (sugar, corn, wheat, soybean, et. al.). But with economies going global, strains on the practice of nations protecting their agricultural bases are going to increase.

As for Alaska having the potential to increase its timber industry, I'm not sure it isn't beating a dead horse, or, as we used to say in the oil business, isn't willing to recognize a "dry hole" when it sees it.

I think if there is any hope, it lies more in finding niche markets for capital and labor intensive-produced products than trying to compete in the commodity markets.

If I read the "lay of the land" correctly, the foregoing would probably please most of the interest groups in Southeast as well, i.e., smaller cuts and more jobs.

Michael A. McIntosh is president of The Boat Company, a Washington, D.C.-based company that does business in Southeast Alaska.

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