Alberta forestry communities brace for uncertainty with new round of U.S. softwood import duties
'It's just unfortunate the American government fights a battle that they know they'll lose'
Alberta communities that rely heavily on forestry jobs are dreading the long drawn-out process ahead as Canada and the United States are once again at odds over the import of Canadian softwood lumber into the lucrative U.S. market.
In an anticipated move, the U.S. Commerce Department has slapped retroactive countervailing duties of between three and 24 per cent on Canadian softwood lumber imports.
Countervailing duties are used to level the playing field when a country believes another country's product is unfairly subsidized.
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In Woodlands County, a rural municipality 150 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, Mayor Jim Rennie said one in five jobs in his area is tied to forestry.
"We're definitely watching this very carefully," said Rennie."It's just unfortunate the American government fights a battle that they know they'll lose."
Rennie said a 20-per-cent tariff "isn't as bad as what some had predicted," but adds the next process will be a real "pain" and an added burden on an industry already challenged by the mountain pine beetle.
"It's disappointing we have to go through this again for the fifth time," said Whitecourt Mayor Maryann Chichak.
There are three lumber mills around Whitecourt, but Chichak said she doesn't anticipate immediate job losses. That could change, Chichak warns, depending on how long the tariff remains.
"The longer this dispute stays in place," said Chichak, "[the greater] the potential for job losses both in the immediate and in the long term."
Chichak said the countervailing duties on softwood lumber emphasize the need to expand the trade market outside the U.S.
"If our economy was a little bit stronger and we saw more housing starts, the forest industry would see our Canadian market absorb the loss they'll see into the States."
Woodlands County Mayor Jim Rennie is encouraged by the work industry has already been doing to open new markets.
"We all have our kids in the same school, we see each other on a regular basis, at the soccer pitch or arenas. These guys from our own communities are in Asia constantly."
Agriculture and Forestry Minister Oneil Carlier said Tuesday the Alberta government is working closely with other provinces, the federal government and industry to deal with the possible effects of this dispute.
"It's very disappointing our neighbour to the south has chosen this course of action," said Carlier.
The president and CEO of the Alberta Forest Products Association called the accusations by the United States "baseless and unfounded."
Paul Whittaker said 40 to 50 per cent of Alberta softwood lumber goes to the United States, and though exports to Asia have increased, they make up only about 10 per cent of current exports.
Speaking to reporters on Monday at the conclusion of her trade mission to China, Premier Rachel Notley hinted at what was ahead for the lumber industry as she set out for Japan.
"We know things are going to get a bit tough with lumber before they get better," Notley told reporters.
"We'll be meeting with people in Japan to talk about greater opportunities for trade in agriculture and for forestry to build that market."
In 2016, the Alberta forestry industry represented $6 billion in economic activity, according to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
The Alberta Forest Products Association estimates there are 18,000 jobs directly linked to forestry in Alberta, while an additional 34,000 are related to secondary industries such as building maintenance, sales, consulting and homebuilding.