Mon, Jun 17, 2002 - Page 20 News List

Logging history may find expression in land reutilization

Taiwan's venerable cypress has been mercilessly exploited for decades, but now a proposal for a forestry museum in the town of Tungshih may serve as an inspiration to conserve this natural legacy

By Derek Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

The old logging factory looms in the midst of Tungshih's scenic splendor.

PHOTO COURTESY OF YEN MING-HUNG

In the small township of Tungshih (東勢), located in the eastern part of Taichung County, a disused logging station stands as a memorial to the destructive exploitation of Taiwan's lumber resources by the Japanese and KMT governments. There are now moves afoot to turn this site into a museum that links the current generations to the island's past.

Ironically, the move to have the logging station made into a museum had its inspiration in a recent major disaster, namely the 921 Earthquake, which devastated much of central Taiwan. Tungshih was one of the heaviest-hit areas on the island. More than 300 lives were lost, hundreds were injured and numerous houses ruined. Volunteers were brought in to help -- one of these was Yen Ming-hung (顏名宏). While doing what he could for the disposal of the dead, Yen was also amazed by the scenery around him.

The vast and somewhat dilapidated shelter where he worked covered more than 18 hectares. The buildings used to house the offices and factories of the Tahsue Mountain Forestry Company (大雪山林業公司), which was a major lumber company in the 1960s.

The forestry company had come into existence in early 1959, using US government aid and designs by a Seattle, Washington company. At the time, it was state-of-the-art. But after about 10 years, it was forced to close down, a victim of management problems that included embezzlement and lumber theft. Thereafter, it sat idle for 30 years, isolated in the quiet, conservative and yet culturally rich Hakka township.

Changing policies

Shieh Shang-ta (謝尚達) of the Forestry Bureau (林務局) suggested another reason for the factory's demise. The notorious August 7 flood of 1959, inundated central and southern Taiwan and triggered the rethinking of government forestry and lumber export policies that eventually led to the company's downfall.

Prior to this, the KMT government had followed the example of the Japanese colonial government in bringing in much-needed foreign exchange with massive exports of cypress and other high-value timber. Taiwan yellow cypress, which holds claim to be the best of the seven types of cypress, now costs approximately NT$70,000 per cubic meter.

One report indicates that the island of Taiwan once possessed around 20,000 hectares of natural cypress forest. Grown over hundreds of years, some of the giant trees are over 1,000 years old. The oldest one on record in Taiwan is now 3,000-years-old and is more than 25m in diameter.

Thirty years of ruthless deforestation begun by the Japanese has reduced the cypress forest area by about half. This quantity continues to diminish despite a total ban on harvesting these trees at high elevations (from 1,800m to 2,500m above sea-level) that was started in 1976.

The Tahsue Mountain Forestry Company was designed specifically to continue this exploitation in company-owned lands that extended from Taichung all the way up to Nantou and Hualien counties. The combination of a policy change, coupled with internal mismanagement, made the company a lost cause and led to its demise in 1973, representing a loss of several hundred million NT dollars for investors. Nowadays, 99 percent of the timber Taiwan consumes is imported from Indonesia or other Southeastern Asian countries.

One man's loss may be another man's gain. Because this forestry company folded within a relatively short period of time, Taiwanese forest conservationists had the good luck to have saved most of the cypress trees on the central Taiwan mountains from the sharp blade of US-made bandsaws. The office-and-factory sites were kept almost intact over these long years.

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