The Miwa district of Hitachi-Omiya, Ibaraki Prefecture, located in the northwest part of the city, close to the border with Tochigi Prefecture, is more than 80 percent forest. To a greater degree than most of Hitachi-Omiya’s other districts, it is struggling with a shrinking population and the graying of those who remain.
As part of forest thinning efforts, local resident Fukuji Kuwata recently cut down a Japanese cedar more than 30 meters tall and about 50 years old.
“In the old days, all you could do was leave the residual products from thinning to rot on the mountains,” Kuwata said.
In fiscal 2012, however, local residents created a group aimed at vitalizing the community and launched what is called a wood station project (see below) in cooperation with the local Miwa timber cooperative.
The wood station project aims to promote the effective use of residual timber products from forest thinning. An increasing number of such operations are under way nationwide.
Residual products left on mountains are exchanged for a community currency that can be used at local shops, thus helping vitalize the local community and preserve satoyama, rural forests that are near inhabited areas and are attended to by nearby residents.
By promoting forest thinning, the project is expected to eventually help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent forests from going to ruin.
Under Miwa’s project, mountain owners bring in residual products and the residents group issues so-called mori-ken (forest certificates) worth ¥4,000 per cubic meter. The mori-ken works as a community currency that can be used at around 60 shops in the district.
These residual products are then purchased by the cooperative at ¥3,500 per cubic meter and processed into sawdust and firewood for sale. The ¥500 difference is covered by donations from local residents and volunteers, the group said.
The residual products Kuwata had taken in totaled 0.8 cubic meters, for which the group paid ¥3,200.
If forests remain untouched without cutting down extra trees or branches, sunlight cannot reach the ground, making it difficult for grass to grow and therefore easier for the forests to cause landslides when the topsoil is washed away by rain.
An increased amount of greenery on the ground thanks to forest thinning also boosts forests’ capacity to absorb carbon dioxide.
Many forests have remained untended because of falling prices for timber. Japanese cedars and cypresses that were planted to build houses during the nation’s reconstruction period following the end of World War II are now reaching their time to be cut down.
However, the price of cedar logs has plummeted to around one-third of its peak in 1980 because of inexpensive imports.
Many of these cedars and cypresses have not been logged because it would not be profitable given the required expenses, including labor costs. Even when these trees are cut down for forest thinning, most of the timber has often been left on the mountains, according to the group.
In the Miwa district, residual products are now considered “resources,” as the group sets a higher price when exchanging them for the local currency.
An increasing number of local residents are now willing to maintain mountains after finding that what were previously considered useless products can be exchanged for electronic appliances, food, gasoline and other items through the mori-ken local currency, according to the group.
The Miwa district’s project is also helping stimulate the local economy. The group has bought about 2,000 cubic meters of residual products from forest thinning over the four years to fiscal 2015 and issued mori-ken worth about ¥7.1 million.
“People who didn’t visit my shop before now come here,” said Katsuo Aikawa, who runs a liquor shop in the district.
Annual sales at Aikawa’s shop have increased by about ¥200,000 because many buy beer, shochu and other products with mori-ken. Kuwata said he has used the local currency to purchase a chainsaw and brush cutter.
To reduce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the Forestry Agency has set a goal of thinning an annual average of 520,000 hectares among about 10 million hectares of artificial forests with Japanese cedars, cypresses and other trees over fiscal 2013 to 2020.
“Taking advantage of residual products left behind from forest thinning can also help vitalize mountain villages,” an agency official said. “In addition to the wood station project, we also aim to promote other efforts to preserve satoyama forests.”
■Wood station project
An initiative under which bases called wood stations are set up to accept residual products from forest thinning in exchange for a community currency that can be used at local shops. The first case was launched in Ena, Gifu Prefecture, in December 2009.
The project can help improve the environment of forests because mountain owners are willing to thin forests after finding out that what they could not sell now has economic value. Using community currencies can also have positive effects on local economies. Today, about 70 wood stations are operating nationwide.