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Raising Wood Value Might Slow Harvest of Old Firs : U.S. turns them into plywood, but others prize grain and color.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In all the fights over harvesting Pacific Northwest timber, it is a curious footnote how the Japanese hold a deeper appreciation of the region’s fine-quality wood than do Americans, and will pay more to get it.

Across the Atlantic Ocean it is the same story: Italians revere and will pay five and six times as much as Americans for old-growth Douglas fir.

Here in the United States, though, wood is pretty much wood. It is fiber. The important measurement is volume, not quality, and industry seeks to keep the price cheap. The longstanding economic doctrine of the domestic timber business is to grow timber and cut it down as fast and economically as possible to manufacture framing materials and plywoods for home construction.

But there is another idea, a radical idea, being advanced now by some architects, economists, woodworkers, environmentalists and even some elements of the wood products industry. The idea is to increase the value of wood in the American marketplace.

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If wood was more valuable, the thinking goes, it would be used more carefully, with keener appreciation of its special properties, with more regard for the forests and at equal or higher profit for those in the wood industry.

Consider a single old-growth Douglas fir, a tree that took root about the time Christopher Columbus set sail.

Abroad, such wood is recognized for its rarity and beauty. The Japanese value the timber for its large dimensions and tight, straight grain, which they leave exposed in traditional home architecture. Italians prize it for use in doors and windows where the color and grain are visible.

Here at home, though, it is apt to be peeled into construction-grade plywood that will then be nailed on the sides of houses and covered with paint or siding.

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This tree’s other values--its standing values--are not considered in today’s domestic marketplace: its value as wildlife habitat, its living connection to the past, its soaring aesthetic value, and most profoundly, its value as something that is irreplaceable, at least for another 25 generations.

Right now, these kinds of trees are being liquidated wherever possible because they grow more slowly at this old age. As a result, harvestable stocks of old-growth softwood are fast shrinking. Lumber companies want these trees cashed out now and the forest replanted as fast-growing plantations, never mind that the quality of wood is inferior.

But if those standing values were attached to the log, it would not be economical to use it as plywood peeler. Its tight, straight-grain wood would have to be sold for special uses at premium prices. Suddenly, it might make economic sense to harvest these trees more judiciously so that old growth will be available on the market in future years.

But wait, how can the value of something be arbitrarily increased? The free market sets the value of commodities like wood, yes?

This question touches off a spiral of finger-pointing.

Lumber companies say they are driven, plain and simple, by customer demand for low-cost construction and remodeling lumber. Critics counter that the industry has done virtually nothing to establish a domestic market for higher-valued, higher-quality wood. Home builders say there is too much pressure on house prices as it is, never mind designer use of wood. Architects by and large have helped wood fall out of fashion. Customers find that plastic suits them fine, thank you.

Against this kind of thinking, new voices are being raised.

An emerging breed of “green” architects is bringing wood out from behind the wallboard where it can be appreciated in the home. Jim Cutler of Bainbridge Island is one of the foremost of the group. His aim is to “expose” wood, “recycle” it and most of all “honor” it, and Sunset magazine responded by placing one of his designs on the cover of its 1991-92 Western Home Awards issue.

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At least one major lumber company is advancing the science of “engineered” wood products--fiberboard substitutes for plywood and glue-laminated beams and a myriad of other products. Louisiana Pacific says such products are cheaper to the consumer, structurally more uniform for builders and, because they can be produced from smaller logs or shavings, are more faithful to society’s growing environmental concern for the old forests.

Some economists say the other timber companies had better pay heed to the new thinking. Among them is Brian Greber, professor of forest economics at Oregon State University, who says higher production costs in the Northwest should force the big timber companies to shift to quality production instead of commodity production “or they will be in economic trouble in this region.”


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