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Kai Ryssdal: One winner in this recession might just be tourism in the great state of New Jersey. Government officials and real estate agents there say penny-pinching East Coasters are staying nearby. And they're snapping up beach rentals for this coming summer -- at 2008 prices, I might add. With spring just a couple of weeks away, Wildwood, N.J., is putting the final touches on a $3.5 million renovation of its oceanfront boardwalk. And so far so good. But economic development is coming with environmental costs. Wildwood is using imported Brazilian hardwood -- ipe wood, it's called. And Joel Rose reports, they are not the only beach town doing it.
JOEL ROSE: On a gray day in late winter, Wildwood is pretty much deserted, except for half a dozen guys in hard hats, who are rebuilding a three-block stretch of boardwalk, one board at a time.
GEORGINA SHANLEY: Unfortunately what they're using here is uncertified ipe rain forest wood from Brazil. It's like walking on a coffin.
Georgina Shanley is an environmental activist from Ocean City, N.J., about 20 miles away. Shanley thought this was one town she had already persuaded.
SHANLEY: About 10 years ago, Wildwood passed a resolution never to use rain forest wood on the boardwalk. It seems like there's a huge addiction of shore towns to rain forest wood, tropical hardwood.
Most of the ipe wood sold in the U.S. comes from Brazil. And as much of 80 percent of that wood is harvested in violation of Brazilian law, says Tim Keating, director of Rainforest Relief. He says an acre of rainforest might contain just one or two mature ipe trees.
TIM KEATING: If you're just hunting down ipe trees, you're bulldozing lots of roads into the forest looking for those ipe trees. It's a huge, huge impact on the forest.
Rainforest Relief tries to persuade U.S. municipalities not to use ipe for boardwalks and decks. But that can be a tough sell, because it's so well suited to the job.
ERNIE TROIANO: Number one, the density is unbelievably hard. It's almost like iron. And number two, it looks like mahogany.
Ernie Troiano is the mayor of Wildwood. He says ipe is expensive, but it's also more durable than other kinds of wood.
TROIANO: Everywhere you go they're using ipe. And I'm not saying that makes it right or wrong. What I'm saying is, it's a proven product. And it'll last. And that's what I need. I need to get the best bang for my buck.
New York was the first city to use ipe for the boardwalk on Coney Island. Now you can find it all over the country, from Miami Beach, to Baltimore's Inner Harbor to Long Beach, Calif.
Mayor Troiano admits that Wildwood violated its own non-binding resolution by turning to ipe. But he says the city did look into alternatives. Wildwood spent $65,000 last fall on a domestic hardwood called black locust. But Troiano says the wood just wasn't up to spec. And there was a lot of pressure from merchants to finish the boardwalk on schedule.
TROIANO:If it's not open by Easter -- Palm Sunday -- all those business owners are not going to be very happy at all. We had to do what we had to do to make sure we got the job done.
The stretch of boardwalk that's under construction happens to be right in front of Morey's Piers, which operates hundreds of amusement park rides and two water parks in Wildwood. Clark Doran is the company's director of planning.
CLARK DORAN: We would be happier if this were black locust and it were done right now than ipe or pine or plastic or any other materials. The black locust seemed like a good solution to us, and we hope it still can be.
Wildwood is planning to redo to rest of its boardwalk over the next few years. The mayor says he'll take another look at the alternatives to ipe. But he's not making any promises.
In Wildwood, N.J., I'm Joel Rose for Marketplace.