National

Nation's forestry workers cashing in their chips

A tree falling in a forest may not make a sound in Japan, at least not in the cash register.

“The price tag on your average straight-growing tree on a mountain comes out to about 1,000 yen,” said Matsuo Iida, administrator of the Forestry Management Association of Japan, an incorporated body of tree growers. “If you count all the trees that can only be used for wood chips, the value on your average tree is about the same as one radish.”

Discouraged tree farmers are refusing to replant what they’ve harvested. At the end of March, there were 25,000 hectares of abandoned stump-ridden forests, according to what lumberjacks say is an extra-conservative estimate by the Forestry Agency, an area equal to more than 5,347 Tokyo Dome baseball stadiums.

“We all share the same sense of mission about protecting the nation’s forests. But times are rough,” said Toru Hayami, the ninth president of Mie Prefecture’s Hayami Forest company, which originated in 1790. Hayami watches over 1,070 hectares of woodland.

Some 60 percent of the nation’s woodlands are privately owned.

Even with generous government subsidies and cost cuts, tree farmers are being driven out of business. According to the latest count, taken in fiscal 2000, 67,000 people were involved in harvesting trees, down 40 percent from a decade earlier.

The price for a plank of cedar, one of the most commonly harvested trees in Japan, has fallen 30 percent in the last 10 years. In fiscal 2001, the average annual income from tree growers and lumberjacks, including part-timers, had dipped to 210,000 yen, down 17.9 percent from the previous year.

Trees, like wine, gain value over time. But the value of aging cedar and cypress has deteriorated in Japan due to a glut caused by massive government-led reforestation efforts in the 1950s.

Add to this stiff overseas competition. Foresters abroad have allied with Japan’s powerful trading companies, delivering planks and wood products at the right price at the right time.

Hayami’s new “hinoki” cypress has been declared a “Mie Brand” and fetches higher prices. But asked whether he would pass on the reins of the forestry business to any of his three daughters, the 51-year-old forester hesitated.

“It’s not a job you can do unless you can dream,” he said. “And right now, circumstances make it hard to dream big.”

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