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Seattle PI: "Forestry groups queried on U.S. funds"

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July 10, 2008 -- A controversial Bush administration deal that funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to groups friendly with the timber industry drew inquiries this week from two U.S. senators, who demanded to know what's being done with the money to help the environment.

http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/370191_timber10.html

By Robert McClure
P-I Reporter

A controversial Bush administration deal that funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to groups friendly with the timber industry drew inquiries this week from two U.S. senators, who demanded to know what's being done with the money to help the environment.

Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., wrote to two timber-friendly foundations to say that using some of the money to rebuild timber towns is fine, but, "we must also ensure the environment sustainability of our forests. If we do not ensure environment sustainability, we will have no forests left to support our timber-reliant communities."

"Good stewardship of these funds must include good stewardship of great American lands," Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement. "This is an opportunity to prioritize the preservation of our forests for generations to come."

Officials of the American Forest Foundation and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities responded that they would gladly show Congress and the public what they are doing. Both said they are funding environmentally friendly projects and telling anyone who will listen about their work.

"I don't know how we could be any more open or transparent," said Carlton Owen, director of U.S. Endowment. "We have spoken to Baucus' office several times. We sent our annual report to every member of Congress in April. We're not required to do that."

The $350 million in payments to the two timber-friendly foundations represented a little more than one-third of the proceeds funneled back to the American side of the border in resolving a 4 1/2-year trade war with Canada over lumber.

Critics noted that even though the United States lost most of the domestic and international court rulings in the trade war, Bush administration negotiators persuaded Canada to return to America $1 billion of the approximately $5 billion the U.S. collected in duties ruled illegal by the trade courts.

At the time, Canadian timber interests were smarting from years of below-par earnings. They faced years more delay in return of the money if the U.S. continued appealing.

Others benefiting from the settlement were a coalition of U.S. timber companies that launched the trade war, which got $500 million; Habitat for Humanity, which got $100 million; and a U.S.-Canadian "binational council" of timber industry officials, which got $50 million.

The deal's architects, though, looked to the long-standing Forestry Foundation and the newly created U.S. Endowment to fulfill terms of the deal calling for some of the money to be used for "meritorious initiatives" aimed at "the sustainability of forests as sources of building materials, wildlife habitat, bio-energy, recreation and other values."

At the heart of the dispute on this side of the border is whether the administration can unilaterally decide how to divvy up proceeds from a trade war, or whether that money should go into the U.S. Treasury for Congress to appropriate.

The senators' interest in the matter was sparked by a Seattle-based law firm for conservationists.

The Washington Forest Law Center filed suit in federal court here to force the administration to hand over information about how the 2006 deal was reached.

Conservationists say that if the timber-friendly foundations are serious about benefiting the environment as well as the timber industry, environmentalists should have a much bigger say in how the money is spent.

"Transparency, openness and accountability -- that's not happening, as far as we can see," said Joe Scott, international programs director for Bellingham-based Conservation Northwest, one of the groups that sued over the administration's refusal to release information under the Freedom of Information Act.

The foundations say they are doing good by the environment.

Owen said an example is a study in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy and others of the use of "conservation easements" to protect land from development.

Larry Wiseman, director of the American Forest Foundation, said his group is working to preserve endangered species. Another major initiative seeks to conserve the longleaf pine forests of the Southeast, he said.

Still, Cantwell said Congress needs clear answers from the groups.

"We don't have any transparency," she said. "We're not getting the information directly from the administration, so ... OK, now these organizations are involved so -- hello? -- what are they spending the money for?"