The trend represents a growing source of revenue for an industry devastated by the downfall of the domestic housing market. But it could turn controversial. The export of raw logs from Oregon to Japan in the 1980s brought criticism from environmental groups and local communities that lost jobs when mills shut down and production shifted to Asia. It is now illegal to export raw logs cut down on public land in the West but the ban does not apply to private land.
To meet overseas demand for raw logs, the Port of Astoria in November began welcoming log ships after a 14-year absence. Westerlund Log Handlers of Bremerton, Wash., set up an export facility in Astoria in response to frustration over having to wait in increasingly long lines to export from Tacoma and Seattle.
In Longview, Wash., big timber players such as Weyerhaeuser have been shipping logs to China for some time. And in Coos Bay, once the busiest departure point for Oregon logs bound for Japan, China is the new destination of choice. “Prices are generally more attractive in that market,” says Kathy Budinick, director of communications for Seattle-based timber giant Plum Creek, which sells raw logs to brokers who export from Coos Bay and other Northwest ports.
Martin Callery, a spokesman for the International Port of Coos Bay, says the first vessel loaded with Oregon logs shipped from Coos Bay to China in August and a dozen more are expected to depart over the winter. Feeding the pipeline are a variety of small and large timber companies holding private land within a 250-mile radius of Coos Bay. Timber companies previously had balked at selling to Chinese buyers because they were offering “ridiculous prices,” Callery says, but now the price has improved enough to justify the sales. “Logs to China is definitely a new market,” he says. “We’ll see how long the market holds up.”
Another unknown is political opposition. Log exports have become a source of protest in British Columbia, where the Ancient Forest Alliance recently called for a ban on the shipping of raw logs to China. Many nations have banned log exports, among them Bolivia, Brazil and Indonesia.