ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
A red oak tree stands in the forest and it's becoming worth less every day. If you own timberlands in Appalachia, you've got lots of oak and this would not be the time to cut it. Despite the worldwide demand for hardwood, even saw mills, especially in West Virginia, are going out of business.
NPR's Noah Adams has the story.
NOAH ADAMS: Let's go find some red oak. We ride in a truck with Rick Persinger. He's a forester for MeadWestvaco. He helps landowners manage their portfolios or standing timber. He works in the southern West Virginia counties. We stopped on a gravel road to watch some trees being cut and loaded on a truck.
How would you describe the smell?
Mr. RICK PERSINGER (Forester, MeadWestvaco): Rich. It is to me. I love red oak.
ADAMS: The value of red oak has been on a long slide, but now you will hear it's dropped off a cliff. Here on the truck is a just-cut 12-foot-long that is worth 40 percent less than it was three years ago.
Mr. PERSINGER: Most likely this particular log will be an export log.
ADAMS: So you think this one's going to go intact in the container to China - sent to, say, China.
Mr. PERSINGER: Yes sir. They'll probably peel it and make it into a veneer that will be placed over a lesser value species and made into furniture and then we're seeing stuff shipped whole from here and going to China and coming back as a finished product.
ADAMS: Right down here in the furniture stores.
Mr. PERSINGER: Yes sir.
ADAMS: In the West Virginia lumber business when you say you're red oak, you're also referring to a couple of other oak trees, the black and the scarlet. And as you listen to this story about the prices, you might be inspired to build, say, a weekend cabin. Go to Smoot, West Virginia. Go to a sawmill called Greenbrier Forest Products and there you can talk with Duane Clemons about his inventory.
Mr. DUANE CLEMONS (Greenbrier Forest Products): It's the predominant species here in this area of the Appalachian. And basically if you run a sawmill in this area you have to saw red oak.
ADAMS: Well how much do you think you have here?
Mr. CLEMONS: Logs?
ADAMS: Well, yeah, yeah.
Mr. CLEMONS: Currently, we probably have about 250,000 feet of logs.
ADAMS: He is figuring that in board feet, that's about 4,000 logs and that's just the oak in the mill yard. Duane Clemons wakes up in the morning thinking about all the trees around the state still standing that he has under contract. He also tries to imagine a world far beyond his West Virginia valley. Hardwood lumber is global. His attitude now is deal with it.
Mr. CLEMONS: Well, because if you don't sell to China, you'll be out of business.
ADAMS: As we heard earlier, some of that oak comes back to West Virginia as inexpensive furniture, competition for companies like Gat Creek Furniture in the northeast of the state. Gat Caperton owns this factory. They build with Appalachian hardwoods, but not much red oak. This is, he says, a matter of fashion. Oak just went out of style.
Mr. GAT CAPERTON (Owner, Gat Creek Furniture): Oak has just become very '80s. I think they just trend through. Oak became very popular, and for a long time had the connotation of strength, longevity, it was really the all-American wood country value seemed to be tied up very closely with oak. It doesn't come across as sturdy to anybody. Today, it comes across more as busy because it has a graining, it has a very distinctive look.
Ms. TONYA MOORE(PH) (Finish Supervisor, Gat Creek Furniture): Red oak was the majority of what we had done here years ago and then slowly it evened out some with the cherry and then eventually the cherry took over.
ADAMS: Tonya Moore is the finish supervisor for Gat Creek Furniture.
What do you have at home?
Ms. MOORE: Cherry. Seasoned cherry, it's my favorite color and my favorite wood.
ADAMS: So what do you do if you own some oak trees these days? The price is going down, the cost of fuel to get it cut is going up. The new housing market has splattered. Even the exports to Asia are down. You might just let it keep on growing.
Noah Adams, NPR News.
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