The North American Free Trade Agreement has been in existence for nearly 20 years. One of the major items left out of the original agreement due to lack of consensus was softwood lumber. I am not clear on how the American system works, but the Canadian one works like this: The forestry company leases the land from the government on long term leases of 50 or 100 years. They are responsible for everything including replanting and forest research (disease, etc.). Stumpage fees are also paid to the government for every tree cut even if it’s a replanted tree some 30 years down the road. These fees tend to be low because the Government only provides oversight while the companies are left to manage the forest for the long-term. (I am in the Oil Patch here so please correct any of my errors.)
The U.S. forestry lobby really hates this system and I am unclear as to why. This news link gives some history on this issue:
Canada’s protracted dispute with the United States over softwood lumber is estimated to have cost lumber producers up to $1.5 billion and thousands of jobs.
Although an agreement-in-principle was reached in December 2003 to end the dispute, one analyst says it may come at the expense of thousands of lumber-related jobs in Canada.
The deal eliminates the 27 per cent U.S. tariff on Canadian lumber, but reduces the amount of lumber Canadian companies can export to the U.S. without penalty. This means Canadian production will have to drop to equal 31.5 per cent of the U.S. market or face a tariff of $200 US for each additional thousand board feet. As it stands, Canadian lumber accounts for 33 per cent of the U.S. lumber market. The deal also calls for:
- The return of just over half (52 per cent) of the $1.6 billion US in duties Canadian firms have paid, with U.S. companies keeping the rest.
- More market access to companies in provinces that change the way they allocate cutting rights to be more like the U.S. model after three years, provided the U.S. government approves the changes.
- A requirement for Canada to drop its complaints to trade tribunals, where it has won decisions against the U.S. duties.
The dispute is centred around stumpage fees – set amounts charged to companies that harvest timber on public land. Many in the U.S. see Canadian stumpage fees as being too low, making them de facto subsidies. A U.S. coalition of lumber producers wants the provincial governments to follow the American system and auction off timber rights at market prices.
The U.S. responded by levying tariffs on incoming Canadian lumber.
This dispute has gone in front of the WTO and the NAFTA panel at least 8 times over the last two decades with the U.S. tariffs and penalties losing every time. The NAFTA commission recently ruled against the 27% tariffs the U.S. government put on softwood imports several years ago. In the wake of this loss Montana Senator Mac Baucus came up with a plan that may be introduced as early as today where U.S. companies will just get to keep the money, NAFTA panel be damned.
This issue actually hurts the little people; workers in the forest industry in Canada and consumers in the U.S. Does just keeping $4 billion dollars you have collected, when the judges have ruled you are wrong, not seem like theft to the average American? Why shouldn’t the U.S. forestry industry change its ways to be more competitive? Is free trade only allowed if American companies benefit?