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The Small Log Conference Hosts First Reverse Trade Mission
By Barbara Coyner
Attendees came from around the globe, many of them ready to do business. Started in 2004 by TimberWest Magazine, the Small Log Conference (SLC) has always been international, but this time around, it morphed into a reverse trade mission, as well.
Doing Business at the Show
Now headed up by Missoula-based Forest Business Network, the conference attracted a 20-person Asian trade delegation from China and South Korea, in addition to over 250 delegates, speakers, and exhibitors from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Finland. The mix of cultures, industry practices, and expanding markets created a strong business climate that energized small log producers, already buoyed by an upturn in domestic housing starts.
“Right after I finished with my panel, a guy grabbed me, and all of a sudden I was buying logs from the Colville Tribe and selling lumber to China,” said Russ Vaagen (Vaagen Brothers Lumber) of his conference experience. Vaagen Brothers, based in Colville, Wash., hosted several dozen conference attendees on a pre-conference tour that included stops at Columbia Cedar in Kettle Falls and Hearth and Home Technologies in Colville.
Cultural Learning Experience
While Asian lumber buyers learned more about the inland Northwest’s wood products on the mill tour, producers and entrepreneurs learned more about the Asian markets as Xu Fang addressed delegates.
The Montana World Trade Center had done the legwork to get the Asians involved in the biennial conference, and Xu is regarded as the Asian lumber market’s key player. Armed with photos of Chinese building techniques, Xu reminded the audience that China is the biggest importer of wood products in the world, with about one third of the imports going for pulp and paper, another 15 percent going to furniture building, and the rest going to construction. “Think of how many buildings are built in China each year,” Xu told the audience.
Xu noted that all logs are debarked before coming into China and are then fumigated. Lumber shipped in is either high grade for construction or low grade for furring strips. Xu’s photos showed a vast difference in how buildings are constructed in China, with building shells constructed generally of concrete reinforced by wood. Interiors are then finished using furring strips for sub-floors and walls.
David Stallcop of exporter Vanport International amplified trends in Asia, noting that Japan looks for components, not commodities, in its building approach. “The traditional Japanese carpenter is gone now, so they want everything pre-notched, almost like Lincoln logs,” Stallcop said.
Why Sell to Asia?
Zeroing in on the conference’s Asian emphasis, Montana State Forester Bob Harrington asked the question many in the audience had quietly pondered: “Why should producers be selling to the foreign markets when companies are already selling all they make here?”
Carey Hester, an international trade specialist with the U.S. Department of Commerce, pointed out that producers can offset declines in the domestic markets with exports. “That way you can guard against downturns,” he said. Stallcop advised that producers would be wise to always have some presence in overseas markets. “Japanese customers are very loyal and will stay with you even in the downturns. They are there for you.”
During another conference session, Softwood Lumber Board CEO Steve Lovett explained the new Softwood Lumber Board and its ambitious goals of getting the word out on the softwood lumber industry in the U.S. The board will not only help with marketing, it is directly involved in fine-tuning building codes. With wood sometimes crowded out by concrete and steel, wood products interests are defending their turf, with some 82 nationwide building projects recently converted from concrete and steel to wood instead. Lovett amplified on the positive carbon tradeoffs with wood and said architects in Chicago are now experimenting with wood high-rise buildings. “It’s a very exciting project and could be a game changer,” Lovett said.
Presentations and Exhibits
As in past conferences, there were strong presentations and exhibits on specialized equipment to handle small logs. Jeff Webber of Stimson Lumber presented an update on the new USNR equipment installed at the company’s Tillamook stud mill, noting it was the most efficient installation he’d seen in his 30 years in the business. And Dwayne Walker, a logger from Arizona, shared a report on the portable HewSaw that has been brought in to deal with salvage logging after that state’s devastating fires of the past.
A wide variety of presenters tackled the constant headache of how to handle a low-value commodity such as bug killed or small-diameter wood when so much of the West’s milling infrastructure is disappearing. Transporting woody biomass, finding contractors willing to deal with bug kill, and keeping mills running were again main topics.
Perhaps most predictably, presentations still focused on federal timber and how to break the logjam in terms of maintaining forest health and industry infrastructure. Curiously, some wondered why forests in the Black Hills got special dispensation to cut timber, when other forests were relegated to analysis paralysis and endless collaboration groups. Attendees were reminded that, before he left office, Tom Daschle had inserted special language in legislation allowing more activities in the Black Hills.
Meanwhile, Christina Progess of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been working at Libby, Mont., on the asbestos issues there. Using a system that will circumvent tedious NEPA procedures, the Forest Service has been tasked with managing huge tracts of forests covered in asbestos. Libby economic development specialists admit it’s a unique situation for any logger or mill because of the health hazards involved.
Continued Forest Service Issues
Despite the special scenarios with federal timber in the Black Hills and at Libby, most Northwest loggers and mills still cite the inaction of the Forest Service as not only a barrier to their businesses, but as a safety issue that should concern the public more than it does.
“Can things get any worse?” asked Keith Heikkila of the American Forest Resource Council, adding that infrastructure is vanishing, dead timber is piling up as fuel, and the federal budget is in austerity mode. “The Forest Service knows the problem, but will they be fast enough to take action?” He suggested the organization is becoming merely a fire agency, endowed with big budgets to fight wildfires, but no budget to restore forest health.
As the conference ended, it was clear that there are markets both at home and abroad, but the federal timber dilemma, along with its companion issues of wildfire and forest health, continue to hobble the industry. Vincent Corrao of Northwest Management in Moscow, Idaho, voiced a cautious optimism, as the markets have improved this year.
Co-presenter Jay O’Laughlin of the University of Idaho echoed the same thoughts, adding that biomass power will continue to grow. Despite its occasionally higher cost over other fuels such as natural gas, O’Laughlin cited the “uncompensated social benefits” of woody biomass energy in terms of wildfire reduction and forest health. Yet the troubling thought is that the country’s politicians are no longer listening to such a practical message.
For an update on the conference and the latest in the industry, stay in touch online at www.forestbusinessnetwork.com and www.softwoodlumberboard.org.