ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Changes in the Japanese housing industry could boost Alaska's ailing timber industry, according to a new report commissioned by the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
The report, by the Center for International Trade in Forest Products at the University of Washington, says revisions to Japan's national building code, combined with shifts in consumer preferences and building styles, have opened a door for products made from Alaska's Sitka spruce, western hemlock and red and yellow cedar.
''With all this shake-up, it presents opportunities for Alaska manufacturers,'' said Michael Johnson, state trade specialist. ''We have what they want.''
Japan is Alaska's major export market. It buys about 70 percent of lumber products produced in the state and nearly all of Alaska old growth spruce logs and cants, according to the report. The second biggest purchaser of Alaska timber is Canada followed by South Korea.
Alaska mills saw export revenue from Japan decline by 65 percent between 1996 and 1998. The report blames the drop-off on the Asian economic slump, depressed timber prices, increased competition from low-cost producers and harvest restrictions in Southeast's Tongass National Forest.
Despite that, opportunity abounds because the Japanese market is in transition, state trade officials said. Historically, Japan sought mostly raw logs from Alaska so their own mills could dry and dress them and cut the lumber according to Japanese specifications. In part, that's because wood has played a unique role in Japanese culture.
''Trees were thought to be the places where the native gods first descended to earth. As a result, wood has traditionally had strong religious meaning and most temples and shrines are constructed with wood framing,'' according to the report.
But times are changing. These days prefabricated houses and units built with engineered wood products are increasingly taking the place of older post-and-beam houses as consumers shift their taste toward more Western-style homes, the report says. Also, the first major overhaul of the country's building code in 50 years could make it easier for Alaska-made dimensional lumber and other building products to be sold in Japan.
Alaska mills, the largest of which are in Southeast, will still have to confront some familiar obstacles, including the distance from foreign markets and the high cost and politics of logging in a federally owned rain forest.
''They're going to have a tough go at it. They're making changes, but it's slow,'' said Mike McGuigan, a lumber inspector in Eagle River.
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