Northwest Forest Problems Turn Alaska Forests Into Hot Commodity With AM-Forest Conference, Bjt

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ Alaska's forests have been transformed into a hot commodity by a sharp decline in logging in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere around the world.

Prices for some grades of Alaska logs are rising to record levels, prompting timber companies to intensify cutting and consider new areas of the state to log.

''To say that markets have gone through the stratosphere is an understatement,'' said John Sturgeon, president of Koncor Forest Products Co., an Anchorage-based timber company. ''The markets are absolutely incredible.''

The price of log exports from Alaska has increased by nearly 60 percent in the past four months, he said.

The Alaska timber industry's miniboom reflects surging U.S. and Asian demand during a time of big declines in supply. British Columbia in Canada has reduced logging and Indonesia has stopped exporting uncut logs.

In the Pacific Northwest, a federal court order to protect the threatened spotted owl has halted most logging of old-growth forests and that has cost the industry more than 20,000 regional jobs.

While some conservationists say compromise efforts in the Northwest's old- growth forests eventually may lead to lower timber prices, Alaska timber industry officials see no quick end to the bull market.

''Anything that looks like a tree, now we want to take a look at,'' Sturgeon said. ''This is not a market that is going to change.''

Much of Alaska's harvest is taken from the Tongass National Forest, where conservationists and industry officials have been battling for years over the old-growth harvest awarded to Ketchikan and Sitka pulp mills.

Unlike the rest of Alaska's timber industry, mill officials are unhappy. Frank Roppel, executive vice president of Sitka's Alaska Pulp Corp., said the mills earn most of their money from turning low-grade logs into pulp and that market has not improved.

Despite the slump in the pulp market, the size of the Tongass harvest is on the rise. Forest managers expect the cut to climb from 370 million board feet in 1992 to 420 million board feet in 1994, said Gary Lidholm, a Tongass spokesman.

But Tongass logging last year lost more than $20 million for the federal government and the Forest Service's plans to increase harvests are likely to face sharp scrutiny from Clinton administration officials under pressure from environmentalists to end below-cost timber sales.

The fastest-growing harvests are on private land in south-central Alaska, where forests were once considered too remote or too spindly to be of commercial value.

Some logging also is under way in the state's vast interior forests of white spruce, birch and aspen. But some say those forests are still too remote and the work season too short to sustain large-scale harvests.

04-02-93 1746EST