ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Forest Service is offering loggers in Southeast Alaska three-year extensions to existing timber contracts to give companies time to ride out one of the worst timber markets in recent times.
The federal agency decided after reviewing lumber prices and economic conditions in the Tongass National Forest that several logging companies were likely to default on timber sales unless given more time to cut, said George Doyle, rural community assistance coordinator for the Forest Service in Petersburg.
Several Tongass mill operators bought timber from the Forest Service in the late 1990s when prices were high. Since then, prices have tumbled, hitting their lowest level in a decade last year, the Forest Service said. Since the peak in 1999, prices have fallen 20 to 30 percent.
Without some assistance from the government, loggers are unable to harvest timber ''without incurring losses that threaten bankruptcy, mill closures or severe economic losses,'' the agency said. The extensions cover contracts awarded after Jan. 1, 1997. Loggers must apply and qualify, the agency said.
The Tongass timber industry has suffered two pulp mill closures within the last 10 years, combined with legal pressure from environmentalists. The Tongass is a 17 million-acre forest that blankets most of Southeast Alaska.
George Woodbury, president of the Alaska Forest Association, said the three-year extensions aren't a cure for the struggling timber industry but that they should ease the pain.
They let loggers delay some of their less economic sales until the market comes back, he said.
Woodbury said the Forest Service has offered many uneconomic sales as it tries to make them pass muster with stringent environmental laws. The contract extensions should help the industry by allowing loggers more breathing space to mix less valuable timber with stands offering better returns, Woodbury said.
Conservationists criticized the contract extensions as a public giveaway. The Forest Service loses money every year on its timber sale program in Alaska because it costs more to manage than the revenue it brings in, they note.
''I'd love to own a public resource and speculate on whether the prices are going to go up at no cost to me. Wouldn't you?'' said Jeremy Anderson, an organizer with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council.
Loggers say the timber pipeline needs to be fed because eventually prices will recover. They note that it often takes years for the Forest Service to survey an area, complete the necessary environmental studies and finally offer a sale. If the timber gets tied up in a lawsuit, delays can drag on even longer.
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