National

More volunteers thinning forests

Logging in decline but preservation efforts grow to prevent erosion, increase carbon sinks

by Masahiro Shimizu

Kyodo News

OSAKA — The logging industry has been in decline and unable to compete with imported timber, but volunteer groups working to preserve trees in danger are surging.

The value of timber production in Japan in 2007 came to ¥225.6 billion, about one-fifth of the sum reported in 1980, while the number of people engaged in forestry plummeted to about 47,000 in 2005 from more than 250,000 in the 1960s.

The sharp drop has been attributed to the fall in prices of standing trees in 1980 to one-seventh that of imported lumber, as well as the depopulation of mountain villages and rising number of forest owners living in urban areas.

But a recent Forestry Agency survey revealed that there were 2,224 volunteer groups actively taking part in forest conservation as of fiscal 2007. The figure marks a surge of about 8 percent over the past 10 years.

Agency officials said volunteer activities have gained the spotlight in parts of the country after earthquakes have wreaked havoc, while environmental problems such as global warming is also sparking public interest.

Because trees absorb carbon dioxide, forest conservation has become more significant against the backdrop of frequent torrential rains that triggered landslides in various parts of the country this year.

One Sunday in July, about 70 people gathered to thin out “hinoki” cypress and “sugi” cedar trees at a 0.5-hectare national forest in the city of Mino, northern Osaka Prefecture.

Tadatsugu Osaki, 68, of the nonprofit Japan Forest Volunteer Association, was on hand to guide them.

“Are we going to cut down such beautiful trees?” he was asked, in reference to 30-year-old trees about 20 meters tall and 15 cm in diameter.

“The trees are not growing properly because this forest is too dense,” he replied.

“Branches and leaves can grow firm and the trees with thick trunks have healthy growth if some are thinned out,” Osaki said, adding that thinning will bring more sunlight in, allowing grass to grow and firm up the soil so it will have less tendency to erode or be washed away.

The volunteers were grouped into pairs or groups of three and given helmets and a saw. Felling trees proved extremely hard work.

It took 30 to 40 minutes to cut the branches from a felled tree into pieces measuring about 3 to 4 meters. Those taking part in cutting 92 trees from morning till evening included company employees, homemakers and retirees.

“I felt good when I heard the sound of a toppled tree,” company employee Yuko Hayashi, 34, said. “I worked up a sweat in my efforts to protect the local environment.”

Hiroshi Yamamoto, secretary general of the volunteer association, said, “We cannot let local people alone care for the forest” because Japan’s logging business is stagnant and under pressure from imported timber, as well as from depopulation and the aging of society.

About 4.2 million hectares of forests nationwide are in need of thinning, said the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, which is trying to find even more volunteers.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama declared at the United Nations that Japan will strive to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020 from 1990 levels.