Baucus Promises to Enforce International Lumber Laws

By Beacon Staff

Steel-toed boots met leather loafers Wednesday when U.S. Sen. Max Baucus and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk visited a local mill to assure Montana lumber workers that the government is working to enforce softwood lumber trade laws with Canada.

Baucus and Kirk toured the F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Company in Columbia Falls, talking with workers during their lunch break. Baucus said he brought Kirk to Montana because he needed to understand the realities of the recession’s effects on lumber mills.

The Stoltze mill temporarily shut down in early February because of a bad housing and construction market brought on by the recession. It opened up again in March.

As President Barack Obama’s principal trade advisor and spokesperson, Kirk works with different countries to negotiate and enforce trade agreements. In this case, he made a promise to “hold Canada’s feet to the fire” when enforcing the Softwood Lumber Agreement (SLA).

“We believe that if you all have an even playing field, you’ll be fine,” Kirk said.

The United States and Canada entered into the trade agreement in 2006 to create a fair trade deal for American softwood producers. Canada agreed to specific export measures, dealing with volume and price. According to the agreement, if the monthly price of softwood lumber is at $355 per thousand board feet, trade is unrestricted. If the price is below $355, each Canadian exporting region is subject to export taxes or volume caps. The measures become stricter as the market falls.

In 2008, an international tribunal concluded that Canada has still not complied with the SLA in some regions, awarding the United States damages. Despite the ruling, U.S. officials said Canada did not remedy the problem areas. As a consequence, the United States put a 10 percent tariff on Canadian softwood lumber in April, which officials say will remain in place until Canada complies with the agreement or the tax collects $54 million.

“We’re at a big disadvantage,” Baucus said. “It’s unfair to us.”

Canada has gone back to the international panel, asking if a settlement they had offered the U.S. was sufficient.

At the lumber mill, Kirk and Baucus took turns assuring workers that Canadian compliance would secure jobs in Montana and that the workers had not been forgotten in Washington, D.C. The agreement could mean the difference between open and closed mills, Kirk said.

Chuck Roady, the mill’s general manager, told Baucus he wanted to ensure a future for the mill and its workers.

“Stoltze has been here a long time, 100 years,” Roady said. “We’d like to be here another 100 years.”

Workers had an opportunity to ask Baucus questions, and the first one strayed from lumber issues. A man expressed his concern over the national deficit, to which Baucus replied that health care reform is a good place to start, because current health care costs Americans too much.

Another question focused on the lawsuits filed by environmental groups that keep lumber companies out of the woods, and the lengthy appeals process that follows if courts rule against the groups.

Baucus said there are few things that bother him more than the ability of these groups to slow the permitting process down.

“National environmental groups have had too much say,” Baucus replied, adding that he is still working to change the appeals process.

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