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Trees, Trade and the Environment

Times Staff Writer

President Reagan’s pleas for Japan to remove its barriers to imports of forestry products are getting an unreceptive hearing here--for a reason far removed from usual protectionist arguments.

Japan needs to maintain its forests to prevent landslides, and, for that reason, the nation’s loggers and the sawmills that handle the trees that are thinned from the mountainsides need protection from foreign competition, according to Takeichi Ishikawa of the Forestry Agency.

“Seventy percent of our total land is forest, the second-highest ratio in the world next to Finland,” Ishikawa told reporters recently.

“In addition, the terrain is very steep. If we don’t maintain the forests (by thinning to nurture sturdier trees), a serious environmental problem will occur.”

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Allowing Japan’s mountainside forests to flourish untouched would provide environmental protection, but that could take a century or more, he said, adding: “Japan can’t wait that long, because people are living around the forests and at the foot of every mountain.”

Basic Level of Protection Sought

The logic seems sound--but only on the surface.

Japan already imports 60% of its forestry product needs, at a cost of about $3.7 billion a year, including $1.1 billion from the United States.

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But a basic level of protection, Ishikawa said, is needed by the operators of about 20,000 sawmills that process the trees that are cut by about 20,000 loggers.

Ishikawa’s argument doesn’t persuade U.S. exporters, because Japan’s sawmills have only the most remote connection with plywood, the product that U.S. negotiators want Japan to import in larger amounts.

Japan grows no trees suitable for use as plywood. All the logs used to make hardwood plywood are imported from Southeast Asia; those used for softwood plywood come from North America.

Cutting tariffs--now 17% on Southeast Asian hardwood plywood and 15% on North American softwood plywood--would encourage home builders to substitute inexpensive plywood for costly lumber, thus driving down demand for logs produced at home even more, Ishikawa said.

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U.S. Tariff Higher Than Japan’s

The Forestry Agency, he said, is trying to accomplish the opposite goal--to increase the use of lumber.

Plywood produced in Japan with foreign logs is about 20% more expensive than imported plywood, Ishikawa said. And he noted that the tariff on plywood imports imposed by the United States--20%--is even higher than Japan’s.

In a trade announcement on April 9, the government of Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone did promise to start lowering tariffs on plywood “in the third year” of a new program to bolster the domestic forestry industry with government subsidies. It did not spell out what year will be the “third” or by how much the tariff is to be cut.

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Ishikawa indicated that the dispute over imports may eventually solve itself. The average age of Japanese loggers is more than 50. So who will cut the trees in the next generation?

“The government is looking for the answer,” Ishikawa said. “If we don’t find one, Japan’s forests will be denuded through erosion. Right now, however, we have no good idea.”


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