U.S. mills fall under Canadian ax

Flood of Canadian timber hurts U.S. markets and the earth

  • NOT A MILL TOWN ANYMORE: Cascade, Idaho

    Chris Butler, The Idaho Statesman

Gary Draper has worked in the timber industry for 25 years, and in that time he's lived through a string of mill closures.

Now he's living through one again. Last month, Boise Cascade announced that both Draper's mill in Emmett, Idaho, and another in Cascade will close this June. About 375 people will lose their jobs in the two towns.

The loss of the mills will cut deeply into these small rural communities where "everybody knows everybody else," Draper says. And it will add to an already remarkable number of mill closures in the state. Over the past decade, 33 sawmills have closed and 1,911 timber workers have lost their jobs, according to the Idaho Department of Commerce. Once the Boise Cascade mill in Emmett closes, only one large sawmill will remain in southern Idaho.

The announcement has started an all-too-familiar blame game in Idaho. Boise Cascade points its finger at the environmental community for pushing the U.S. Forest Service to dramatically reduce the amount of federal timber made available to mills; environmentalists have responded by saying that Boise Cascade is finally paying the price for years of overcutting.

But unlike past debates, this time everyone agrees on one point: The lumber market stinks. Industry analysts say a five-year-old trade agreement with Canada has allowed a flood of Canadian timber to depress lumber prices in the U.S. While no one claims that the agreement is the direct cause of the Emmett and Cascade closures, no one denies that it has had a dramatic impact on the U.S. timber industry. More than 100 U.S. mills have closed in the past six months.

The loss of sawmills has attracted the concern of environmentalists, who recognize that less cutting in the U.S. means more cutting in Canada, where environmental regulations are looser. They have joined the timber industry in calling for a renegotiated agreement that will keep U.S. workers and Canadian forests whole. But time is running out. The trade agreement is due to expire on March 31, and it is unclear whether the Bush administration will renegotiate.

Welcome to the New World Order

The center of controversy is the 1996 U.S.-Canada Softwood Lumber Agreement, which sets a 14.7 billion board-feet limit on the amount of lumber Canada can export duty-free to the U.S. That has turned out to be a high limit.

"We're awash in wood," says Scott Shotwell, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports.

Canadian lumber is also cheap, because the Canadian government grants substantial subsidies to its timber industry in order to maintain high employment levels.

"Canadian companies can buy trees on the stump for far less than American companies and without competition," says Potlatch Corporation's Frank Carroll. "It's hard for American companies to compete with the Canadian government."

The result has been plummeting lumber prices. Since last year, lumber prices have dropped 33 percent, according to the Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports. Bad as the agreement has been, the industry experts warn that the market for U.S. mills will get even worse if the agreement is allowed to expire. So-called "free trade" will allow even more Canadian lumber to flood the market, further depressing prices.

Strange alliances

The U.S. timber industry would like to see a value-based tax on Canadian lumber. To this end, it is aggressively lobbying the Bush administration to open negotiations for a more stringent agreement. In an unusual twist it has been joined by national environmental groups like Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"You haven't seen us standing up together (with timber companies) at press conferences yet," says NRDC's Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, but she believes the stakes are sufficiently high to put aside traditional differences.

Canadian government subsidies already encourage high levels of cutting, she says, and if the agreement expires, a total absence of trade restrictions will only offer more incentive for logging - and more environmental devastation - in Canada.

Strange alliances have also formed in Congress. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., sent a letter to President Bush urging renegotiation of the agreement before it expires, and warning that the lack of a renewed agreement would be "devastating to our timber industry." Fifty-three senators from as disparate ends of the spectrum as Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Larry Craig, R-Idaho, have signed Baucus' letter.

If a new trade agreement cannot be reached this month, the Department of Commerce could impose countervailing duties on Canadian lumber. Those would level the economic playing field for U.S. companies, and would make it less profitable for Canadian companies to carry out large-scale logging.

But a fight over duties or even a new, tougher agreement may not be easy. Cheap Canadian lumber has been a windfall for giant lumber buyers like Home Depot, and they don't want that supply restricted. "We would like to see this agreement expire," says Jenna Morgan of the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association. "We would like to see free trade in softwood lumber between the U.S. and Canada."

While the softwood case highlights the economic perils of the globalized economy, it also underscores an environmental paradox. Environmental protection, while successful locally, can ultimately be undermined by globalized markets.

"We're one ecosystem and the impacts are felt by everybody. We need a mindset that thinks about North American forests, not U.S. and Canadian forests," says Joe Scott, head of the Northwest Ecosystem Alliance. "I don't think we should be afraid to use trade policies to defend our shared ecosystem."

Matt Jenkins is an HCN intern.

You can contact ...

  • Joe Scott, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance 360/671-9950 ext. 11www.ecosystem.org/projects_softwoodlumber.html;
  • Deborah Regan, Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports, 202/[email protected]
High Country News Classifieds
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
    The Mountain Lion Foundation is seeking an Executive Director. Please see our website for further information - mountainlion.org/job-openings
    Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Washington, DC Position Reports to: Program Director The Western Organization of Resource Councils (WORC) is seeking a Washington, DC Representative...
    Position Title: Regional Campaign Organizers (2 positions) Position Status: Full-time, exempt Location: Preferred Billings, MT; remote location within WORC's region (in or near Grand Junction...
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....