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Timber execs, Wyden call for new trade deal to slow cheap imports

DILLARD — Fording a flood of cheaper lumber imported from Canada, local timber executives met with U.S. Senator Ron Wyden to jointly call for a new trade agreement or risk whittling the industry at home.

"What we need is a fair system that allows individuals and companies on both sides of the border to feel they are being treated fairly," Wyden, D-Oregon, said. "... What this comes down to, folks, is what I call trade-done-right."

Wyden stopped at a Roseburg Forest Products mill in Dillard on Tuesday to share the latest on talks to hammer out the agreement, which would succeed the Softwood Lumber Agreement that limits the amount of lumber Canada can export to the U.S.

The agreement, which was ratified in 2006, expired last October and gave way to lumber from the neighbors up north to come pouring in. According to Grady Mulberry, CEO of Roseburg Forest Products, lumber from Canada is up 43 percent since the deal expired and prices have been driven down by nearly a quarter on the dollar.

"It's certainly very impactful on Oregon mills like ours and it certainly makes it very hard for us to compete," Mulberry said.

The last agreement was established in 2006, but trade deals over lumber between Canada and the U.S. date back to the 1980s. Domestic lumber companies have contended that harvests up north were aided by subsidies from the Canadian government and created a product too cheap for local companies to compete with.

But the pact expired last fall, bringing along with it a one-year freeze on trade tariffs and paving the way for Canadian companies to import freely until this October. With that deadline approaching, some fear what will happen to the domestic market if a deal isn't struck soon.

Talks between the Obama Administration and that of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have been underway for some time. And, on July 19, 25 U.S. senators signed a letter commending the American ambassadors for work in negotiations.

"A strong lumber industry is essential to the U.S. economy, and securing fair trade in lumber is of critical importance to domestic lumber manufacturers and their workers, as well as tree farmers and landowners, and the communities they support," wrote U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.

Should talks stall, it would be particularly problematic for timber-reliant communities like Douglas County. Wyden went so far as to call the area, "near the epicenter of the debate," during his remarks.

"What we're seeing at Roseburg is being replicated all across the country," Wyden said. "We're seeing executives, union folks, people all across the political spectrum — Democrats and Republicans — coming together because what is on the line is the ability to have high-skill, high-wage, good paying jobs in natural resources."

According to Mulberry, Roseburg Forest Products has continued with business as usual, but something needed to change if it was going to succeed in the future.

"We continue to invest and be more-and-more competitive, but at the same time, without a level playing field, it doesn't matter how competitive you get you can't offset all of that import supply," Mulberry said.

Roseburg Forest Products has about 300 employees.

Douglas County Commissioner Susan Morgan drove the point further by talking of how county residents rise and fall with its economy. The county, like much of Southwestern Oregon, has high rates of substance abuse, domestic violence, child poverty and more, she said.

"The one that helps with the economic and social stability here in the county are the jobs in the timber sector. Not just the jobs in the mills, (which) are a really important piece of it, but this reaches out across the economy and across all parts of this county," Morgan said.

Timber and wood products jobs comprise about 30 percent of jobs in Douglas County, Morgan said. And, according to Wyden, there are about 32,000 employees in those fields throughout the state.

In this Feb. 26, 2015, photo, a front-end log loader transports logs at Swanson Group Manufacturing in Roseburg. Fording a flood of cheaper lumber imported from Canada, local timber executives met with U.S. Senator Ron Wyden in Dillard Tuesday to jointly call for a new trade agreement or risk whittling the industry at home. (Michael Sullivan/The News-Review via AP, file)