In a mountainous area in Fukushima Prefecture, junior high school students saw at trees as professional forest workers give them instructions and pointers.
“I can smell and feel the warmth of the trees,” says one of the students participating in the field trip to Iwaki’s Tabito district.
The trip is one of several local efforts to nurture a dwindling number of potential successors to conserve one of Fukushima’s most important resources. While dealing with an aging population and restricted zones set after an earthquake and tsunami triggered reactor meltdowns in March 2011, the prefecture has been struggling to secure younger workers to sustain and revive its forests.
“We hope more and more children will be interested in working in the forest industry,” said Hirataka Midorikawa, 46, a forester and member of a local timber group that for 10 years has organized classes to give students experience in forestry.
The Tabito district is known for rich forests which occupy 90 percent of its land and a once-thriving timber industry.
Although more than 14,000 people worked in Fukushima Prefecture’s forest industry in 1960, the number had dropped to 2,183 by 2015, primarily due to a graying population. Many forest owners are also believed to have left the industry due to declines in timber prices.
In Tabito, the number of foresters has plunged below half of its peak level. Midorikawa, who studied forestry at the Tokyo University of Agriculture, returned to his hometown to “keep the local industry running.” Inheriting mountain forests that were originally taken care of by his great-grandfather, he now produces cedar and cypress timber to be mainly used as building materials.
Midorikawa joined the local timber group in 1995 and worked on branding locally produced timber in Tabito. His group’s effort to familiarize children with the industry through the classes and public displays of handmade Christmas trees and kadomatsu (New Year’s decorative pine branches) has been a success, as some young forest workers have joined the group.
But with entry into some forests restricted following the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, the number of new workers to join the prefecture’s forest industry in fiscal 2016 fell to 84, about one-third of the pre-disaster level.
With thinning operations stalled in some areas, young successors are “urgently needed to revive forests,” an industry worker said.
A forest industry association in Fukushima has been helping young workers improve their skills through training in logging or other tasks.
The prefectural government also subsidizes incomes for timber workers and allows local high school students to inspect professionals’ jobs on-site.
“We’d like to change the notion that (the forest industry) requires grueling work, since mechanization has progressed,” said a Fukushima government official in charge of promoting the local timber industry.
In the town of Minamiaizu, loggers are trying to boost the business by branding their lumber as environmentally friendly.
At a local timber company, certified cedar logs are marked in green to show they meet the criteria set out by the Sustainable Green Ecosystem Council. The SGEC is a third-party group in Japan that certifies timber from forests which clear specific criteria, including those where measurements are taken to maintain soil and water resources when trees are cut.
As of April, about 13,000 hectares of forests in 11 municipalities in the prefecture have been certified by the council.
“If we encourage a greater use of SGEC-certified lumber, consumers will have greater awareness of environmental sustainability,” said Shun Matsuzawa, 30, an executive at a Minamiaizu-based nonprofit organization of 20 forestry companies which promotes member companies’ SGEC-certified lumber.
The group’s effort is beginning to pay off. One of the member’s SGEC-certified cedar timber has been shipped to Tokyo to be used in the construction of facilities for the 2020 Games.
Minamiaizu used to be well-known for forestry, with many locals working in the industry.
But as the market shifted to imported lumber and the industry shrank nationwide, the number of timber businesses in the town declined to less than a third of the 70 companies it boasted in its heyday.
That’s when the certification system caught the attention of Matsuzawa and others in the town.
In 2015, the Forestry Agency designated the organization as a role model to promote the usage of certified timber.
“Our effort is bearing fruit,” Matsuzawa said.
But hurdles remain.
Since the SGEC certification system isn’t widely recognized, it hasn’t triggered a large number of shipments so far.
“The central and prefectural governments should create a system that would promote the use of certified timber,” said an official who works in Minamiaizu’s lumber business.
This section features topics and issues from Fukushima covered by the Fukushima Minpo, the largest newspaper in the prefecture. The original articles were published on May 28 and June 6.