Alaska forests grow a unique product, which bodes well for Alaska's ability to compete in the huge global market for wood, provided the industry here can stabilize its supply of raw material. No other place in the United States produces the tight-grained, old growth hemlock found in Alaska's coastal forests, particularly in the Tongass National Forest. Efforts by other hemlock growing states, such as Washington and Maine, have not been able to overcome the japanese preference for Alaska hemlock. Increased competition from other white woods, particularly those from Scandinavia, however, has made the marketplace more difficult for Alaska producers.
With the downturn in Japan's economy and other factors, which have changed demand in that market, Alaska hemlock has become a very important material for window and door frame stock and for certain furniture applications in the Lower 48. Nearly all of it is cut to specification here and then shipped to the Pacific Northwest for further manufacturing. Therefore, Alaska sawmills not only support local jobs, they help ensure continued wood manufacturing employment in other states, particularly in Oregon and Washington--places that have been hit very hard in the forest products sector by the spotted owl controversy. A new mill, presently under development in Ketchikan, will take the lower grade hemlock sawlogs and turn them into veneer for laminated veneer lumber. Laminated veneer lumber is largely replacing solid wood beams in new home construction and is developing a place in other manufacturing niches, such as furniture.
Sitka spruce is the other major species growing in the Alaska coastal region. The high-end spruce log is used for pianos and guitar backs and other high-quality music applications. Sitka spruce is also highly prized for its beauty and strength-to-weight ratio. At one time aircraft were made from it, and it still has some high-tech applications in the aviation and aerospace defense fields. It is also used as a construction material, competing effectively against Canadian lumber, Canada being the only other place where Sitka spruce grows in quantity. It is now being investigated as a substitute for pine in some applications. Ponderosa pine is becoming increasingly rare in the marketplace because of dramatic cutbacks in federal harvest in the states where it is most plentiful: Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho and western Montana.
Southeast Alaska's minor species, Western red cedar...