Seattle PI: "Environmentalists sue over Canadian timber agreement"
By Lisa Stiffler, P-I Reporter
Environmentalists are filing a lawsuit this week against the federal government for what they say was an illegal and unfair agreement with Canadian leaders to settle a dispute over timber sales.
The deal funneled nearly $1 billion in tariffs collected on Canadian softwood lumber into the pockets of the U.S. timber industry and timber-friendly groups, said Peter Goldman, the lead attorney for those opposed to the deal.
Instead, the money should have gone into the U.S. Treasury to be distributed by Congress, he said. "The U.S. cannot get around that legal duty by laundering the money through Canada."
The environmental groups Conservation Northwest and the Center for Biological Diversity are filing their suit in U.S. District Court in Seattle and in the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York. It names the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and other federal agencies as defendants.
The story begins in 2001 when U.S. timber interests began petitioning the Bush administration to put tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber -- including fir, cedar, pine and other conifers -- claiming that the Canadians were getting government subsidies that gave them an unfair advantage in the marketplace.
The administration slapped tariffs on the wood in 2002, setting off a series of legal battles between the governments. Over the years, multiple international trade groups issued decisions finding the tariffs
either too high or illegal.
To settle the drawn-out, costly debate, the two nations agree in September 2006 that the U.S. would return the more than $5 billion in duties it had collected on the wood, and Canada agreed to limit its softwood exports.
They also decided that Canada would then wire back across the border $1 billion of that money to be meted out by the U.S. Trade Representative, which was advised by the White House's Council on Environmental Quality.
Before the agreement was finalized, the U.S. Court of International Trade outlawed transactions in which the administration gives money to an industry in the settlement of a trade dispute involving that industry.
Officials with the U.S. Trade Representative's Office maintain that the agreement was legal at the time it was made.
"We haven't even seen the lawsuit so we can't comment on any of the allegations, and, as you know, we generally cannot comment on pending litigation," Gretchen Hamel, a spokeswoman for the Trade
Representative's Office, said in a statement. "However, we are fully confident of the legality and appropriateness of the agreement."
The agreement specified that $450 million of the $1 billion go to "meritorious initiatives" that promote sustainable forestry, education, support for timber-dependent communities, and low-income housing and
The money was distributed among three groups:
The U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities received $200 million. The organization was formed just before the deal was finalized, and the board of directors is heavily weighted with people who currently or formerly worked in timber and related industries.
Its focus is on sustainable forestry through protecting woods for lumber production; identifying forest benefits, both economic and environmental; and supporting rural communities that have historically
depended on the timber industry for jobs.
The American Forest Foundation received $150 million. This nonprofit is geared toward helping family-owned timber companies, environmental education and preventing the conversion of timberlands to development. Its board of trustees is made up primarily of owners of small tree farms and timber-related companies, as well as a handful of environmentalists and an emeritus science professor.
Habitat for Humanity received $100 million. The nonprofit's construction of homes for the needy would help spur demand for American and Canadian lumber, negotiators reasoned.
The groups filing suit are focusing their objections on the first two recipients.
"It's clear that the recipients of this kind of backroom deal largess don't necessarily represent the full spectrum of people concerned about this issue," said Joe Scott, international programs director for
Conservation Northwest, one of the plaintiffs. "These foundations are clearly affiliated with the mainstream U.S. timber industry."
Carlton Owen, president of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities, said his group sought environmentalists for its board.
But they realized that might exclude those same groups from getting their grants because of conflict of interest concerns. Despite their absence, the endowment takes ecological concerns seriously, he said.
"Every initiative we take on has a major environmental leg or component, otherwise it doesn't meet our definition of sustainable forestry," Owen said.
Larry Wiseman, president and chief executive officer of the American Forest Foundation, said his group deserved the giant financial boost, adding that "any suggestion that the work we do isn't consistent with
the sustainability of forests today and tomorrow and well into the future must come from people who don't know what we do."
The money "helped us and other organizations with whom we work to break new ground in sustainability," Wiseman said, noting his foundation often teams up with environmental organizations.
In the suit, environmentalists also are challenging the failure of the government to make sure the agreement protected forest ecosystems. The deal, which sets logging export limits that can affect habitat on both sides of the border, should have undergone a National Environmental Policy Act review, they said.
If the environmentalists win their case, they hope to negotiate a settlement in which the money is frozen where it is, and Congress decides where it should go.
"Trade agreements should not be immune from public and environmental analysis," Scott said. "The point of the lawsuit is to hold the U.S. government accountable for these types of agreements -- they have to
follow public process and the law.
"They can't be done in backrooms with guys smoking cigars."
P-I reporter Robert McClure contributed to this story. P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog on the environment at datelineearth.com.