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Sealaska’s Second-Growth Harvest Sells

March 31, 2011

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

You’ve probably heard that most of Southeast Alaska’s second-growth timber is decades away from harvest. But the Sealaska regional Native Corporation is experimenting with some older stands of young trees.

Most of Sealaska’s second-growth timber is no older than the corporation itself. Thinning, brushing and pruning have sped growth. Still, it’s years away from being large enough to log.

But a few stands were cut long before the regional Native Corporation formed back in 1972. One is on Dahl Island, off the outer coast of Prince of Wales Island.

Sealaska Timber Corporation President Wade Zammit says the military used the wood for airplane construction about 70 years ago.

“We chose that area because it had fairly mature second growth, has developed road systems and it was close to the water,” Zammit said. “And we integrated a traditional processor and a shovel with helicopter logging.”

He says it took a lot of planning and some experimenting. But the location and a quick turnaround made it profitable.

Last year’s logging produced 12 million board feet of timber, which were sold to China and Korea. That made up 21 percent of the corporation’s total harvest.

Sealaska’s experience is relevant to others considering the second-growth timber business. That’s the direction the Forest Service, and some of the region’s environmental groups, want to go.

But timber appraiser Ray Granvall cautions that the Dahl Island sale is unique.

“They had the infrastructure there to do it,” Granvall said. “You can’t go into the very small stands of older timber that belong to the Forest Service without that infrastructure and try to do the same thing.”

Granvall recently inventoried younger stands of Tongass trees for the Southeast Conference, an economic-development organization that supports logging.

He found some older, second-growth forests. But they were too small or isolated to be worth harvesting.

“I’ve seen letters from representatives, senators, congressmen, from the current administration in Washington D.C., about forcing the industry into a second-growth economy right off,” Granvall said.

And it’s not there. There’s no volume there to do that, not yet. It’s going to take at least 40 years before you get there.

The Dahl Island harvest taught Sealaska about some differences between second growth and older timber. Zammit says there’s a lot of competition in the international market.

“It is more of a commodity. So the second growth out of Alaska competes with the second growth out of the Pacific Northwest and out of New Zealand,” Zammit said. “It has a lot more volatility with pricing, but it has a fairly large customer base.

It’s a different market in part because it’s different wood. Younger trees, especially from thinned or otherwise managed stands, grow faster. That puts their rings father apart, which makes their timber more likely to twist and shrink when dried and processed.

Zammit says it’s somewhat of an issue for Southeast second-growth. But it’s smaller factor, due to our climate.

“The Pacific Northwest has much faster growth rates. New Zealand has much faster growth rates. In Alaska we have slower growth rates,” Zammit said. “And that closer ring and more fine grain in the second growth actually had some value to customers. And we didn’t know that going into this.”

Sealaska’s efforts parallel a push for second-growth logging in the Tongass.

Sitka Conservation Society Executive Director Andrew Thoms says large-scale efforts may be years away. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

“We have a finite resource in old growth,” Thoms said. “And old growth is the timber we have a competitive advantage for but we don’t have a lot of it left.”

Sealaska plans another major Dahl Island harvest this year. Like its other cuts, and an increasing amount of Tongass timber, logs will be shipped to Asia in the round.

“Now that we have proved the model up we’re looking for other areas in the ownership where we can apply this,” Zammit said. “We’re actually now looking for areas for 2012.”

But it’s unclear how much more second-growth will be worth logging that soon. Like the Tongass, most of Sealaska’s stands still have decades before they are ready to harvest.

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