Japanese legislators hear from Washington foresters

Japanese legislators hear from Washington foresters
Japanese legislators touring an Olympia-based tree farm got recommendations on best practices from a small forestland owner as they sought information to aid their nation’s timber industry. Photo: TJ Martinell

Looking to improve their country’s struggling forestry industry, congressmen from Hyogo Prefectural Assembly’s Forestry Development Committee in Japan have turned to Washington foresters such as Ken Miller, who along with his wife Bonnie represent the 216,000 small forestland owners in the state.

During an Aug. 22 tour of their 139-acre farm abutting Millersylvania State Park, Miller described the active management strategies and long-term planning necessary to prepare a crop of trees for harvest 40 years later – along with lessons learned from the state’s 1999 Forests and Fish Law.

Almost two-thirds of Japan is forestland. Yet according to Japan’s English news site Nippon, the country’s forestry industry has suffered a decline for almost 40 years, following a post-World War II boom. Between 1980-2014, its market value fell from ¥1.158 trillion ($11 billion) to less than ¥450 billion ($4.2 billion); Washington’s total forestry revenue in 2017 was $28.6 billion.

Along with depressed timber prices, the number of people employed in Japan’s forest industry also decreased by two thirds between 1980-2014. Some foresters have actually ceased active management of those tree stands, leading to unnatural growth.

Aside from what owners themselves can do to maintain forestland, Miller had political advice for the congressmen during their tour about how to encourage the industry.

“Don’t do this,” he said, as he held up a copy of the Washington Forest Practices set up through the Forest Practices Act.

For many forest industry advocates, the Forests and Fish Law was an important collaborative process that avoided much of the fallout caused when the spotted owl was placed on the endangered species list in the early 1990s and halted logging activity in many rural communities. But for small foresters like Miller, the law and similar regulations represent unmet promises made at the time, when it was known in advance the new law would have a disproportionate impact on small forestland owners.

To this day, programs created and operated through the state Department of Natural Resources to help them navigate that law and mitigate economic harm to their operations continue to be underfunded.

“Nobody remembers the deals we made in 1999,” Miller said.

The law’s intent is to protect fish habitat; among its provisions are buffers placed around habitat in which tree harvesting is prohibited. Because most small forestland owners are located lower in the watersheds where streams are wider, a larger percentage of their properties are impacted by those buffers.

However, since 1999 several aspects of the law have remained undecided. One such provision is the “water typing rule,” defining what constitutes a “fish habitat” and therefore determining how much forestland is barred from logging.

“I’m afraid I’m going to die before they get around to making a decision,” Miller said.

Also left uncompleted are alternative harvest restriction plans that allow foresters to potentially conserve more of their land for harvesting.

Miller added that while larger foresters might have the resources to figure out the rules, it’s overly complex for a smaller business that might do just 1-2 applications in a lifetime. It’s costly for them to hire someone like Rep. Ed Orcutt (R-20), who runs his own forestry consultant company and attended the Aug. 22 tour.

“The Forest Practices are too complicated for even the Forest Practices Board,” Miller said. “We have what we have because we’re (fiscally) tight. We don’t spend money unless we have to.”

DNR’s Small Forestland Owner Office is intended to provide technical assistance, but it can often take months – or even a year – before it responds. There is also the Forest Riparian Easement Program that offers up to 50 percent of the timber harvest value of forestland placed within a buffer for small forestland owners that meet certain requirements. However, the program is several years behind in funding.

“I hope to live long enough to get some money,” Miller said.

That’s not due to a lack of effort by DNR, however. Forest Practices Region Support Manager Brandon Austin explained during the tour that the organization requests money from the legislature every year, and usually there is enough to fund 30-40 easements annually. With a current list of 137 landowners seeking compensation, DNR asked in the latest biennial budget for $17.5 million, but the legislature appropriated just $2.5 million.

However, Miller told the Japanese delegation that public attitude toward foresters can decide not just the industry’s place among competing legislature funding priorities, but can also result in public policy decisions  that he believes doesn’t always reflect scientific data.

“I’m told that in some societies…if you own timberland you’re revered, you’re really a wonderful person,” he said. “They’re exalted or something. For whatever reasons, that’s not the paradigm we’re in. Unfortunately, science doesn’t always matter.”

Orcutt told the congressmen to also look at the mill infrastructure, which in Washington state has decreased significantly. “If they have to ship wood longer distances, the problem there is the mill will pay the same amount for wood, but the further the landowner has to ship it, the less money for the landowner.”

“Here, people are going to grow timber for 40 years before they get any money back out of it,” he added. “If they see it’s going to be difficult to sell, or they’re going to get less for it, they’re going to be less inclined to grow it.”

That, and the totality of land-use restrictions and regulations can often cause forestland owners to sell their property or develop it. It’s an issue the legislature is exploring through a new economic impact study via SB 5330 to determine how much small forestland has been converted to other uses since 1999.

Miller says he could build up to 19 homes on his land, though he hopes to pass the family business on to the next generation.

In the end, he says the best way to help the industry is to encourage further use of wood products. “If a higher percentage of the world builds with wood, it improves the value of forestland.”

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