November 19, 2018
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Tougher trade policies can give Maine’s sawmills a chance to thrive

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

“No round stick of wood should ever leave Maine.” Have you heard that before? Spend time in the small towns of Aroostook, Somerset or Penobscot counties and you just might. This phrase is echoed by the people of northern Maine who have watched their communities — built on the sweat of cutting, hauling and sawing wood — wither away while those outside our border make money off Maine’s resources.

Harmful trade policies impacting our forest product industry have hamstrung northern Maine for the better part of a century. Conversely, Canada’s federal and provincial governments have done a great job looking out for their industry. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., corporations and lobbyists that benefit from this imbalance have succeeded in enacting trade and migrant labor policies that hurt those whose livelihoods depend on Maine wood being cut by Mainers, hauled by Mainers and sawed by Mainers.

Often it seems a person’s support for steel, aluminum, or, in this case, softwood lumber duties is linked to their support or opposition to President Donald Trump. But it is not that simple. Like the circumstances troubling Maine’s woods industry, solutions lie somewhere in the middle.

[Your house was likely built with Canadian lumber, and it’s reigniting a trade war]

Quite simply, softwood lumber duties — as a result of the full enforcement of the U.S. trade laws under Trump — has not only kept people at work, it has created new jobs for Maine’s sawmills. Take for example the Pleasant River Lumber mill in Jackman. The day following the announcement of softwood lumber duties, the mill announced it was adding a second shift and the addition of 35 new jobs. Pleasant River Lumber also is working on a $20 million expansion at its facilities in northern Maine. This is proof duties work and, as a member of Congress, I will work to improve and strengthen initiatives like this to better improve our sawmills, our markets for Maine wood and the rural Maine economy. Furthermore, to be clear, I’m not going to be afraid to support these duties just because Trump is a Republican and I’m a Democrat.

But if we really want to make sure our forestry sector is strong at all levels, we have to do more. We also have to chip away at the competitive advantage Canada has on our loggers and truckers. This month marks the 20th anniversary of the St. Pamphile Border Blockades, a six day effort undertaken by St. John Valley woodsman in October 1998. Protesting loss of work to Canadian outfits whose presence also cut rates for Maine loggers, they physically barricaded the crossings at St. Pamphile, Estcourt and Daaquam to stop Canadian loggers from crossing the border.

[Opinion: Maine’s sawmills finally can compete against Canada’s subsidized lumber]

Those blockades were controversial and many differing opinions remain. From what I understand, they were a result of desperation. The St. John Valley had long been losing population; land ownership was being consolidated under corporations that would make it more difficult for woodworkers to have a voice; and emotion over school closures and loss youth has simmered for years. In response to the blockades, politicians at both the state and federal levels met with the loggers, toured the area and made promises. Twenty years later, as a result of market changes and mechanization in the logging industry, there are far fewer Canadians crossing the border each day. However, this did not happen because the government kept its word.

Canada subsidizes its forestry sector at every level, and it’s clear this has protected their workers and mills and allowed them a competitive advantage over Maine. Meanwhile, Mainers turn away from the woods looking for access to health care while no Canadian worker has to worry about basic coverage. Taken altogether you have to ask yourself: how does a Maine sawmill compete? How does a Maine logger compete? How does a Maine trucker compete?

[The forces pulling apart the lives of Maine’s iconic loggers]

The answer is they do the very best they can, but it is tough. Most folks out in the woods today are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and it’s only getting worse. That is why I will listened to the people who are upholding the honor of Maine’s oldest and most storied trade. For too long Maine’s sawmills have been torn down, truck trailers sit empty, and feller-bunchers and skidders are repossessed while our neighbors to the north increase production and take care of their own.

In Washington, D.C., Democrats and Republicans alike must protect Maine’s woods industry. If elected to Congress this November, it will be my goal to work with loggers, truckers and our mills to make these jobs and businesses stronger than they have ever been because Maine’s identity cannot be preserved without a robust forestry sector. I intend to make sure every politician in D.C. knows it.

Jared Golden is the Democratic candidate for the 2nd Congressional District.

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