Wyden to press China over unfair trade

Hardwood plywood manufacturers in Southern Oregon say unfair trade practices by their counterparts in China threaten some 2,000 jobs in the region.

"This is not a red state or blue state issue — this is a red, white and blue issue," said Joe Gonyea III, chief operating officer of Springfield-based Timber Products, during a two-hour Public Lands and Forests Subcommittee field hearing Wednesday in Medford chaired by U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Imports of Chinese hardwood plywood, encouraged by illegal subsidies, falsely classified products, fraudulent labeling and illegal logging, have grown more than 1,000 percent in the past four years, Gonyea testified.

"These activities fly in the face of international trade rules — rules that China agreed to accept and abide by when it joined the World Trade Organization," he said.

Witnesses representing industry, government agencies and labor unions agreed the result was a cheaper plywood which floods the domestic market with a product that is illegally logged and poses a health risk with its formaldehyde-based glue.

Some 1,200 workers in Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties are among the nearly 2,000 Southern Oregonians who work in the hardwood plywood industry. That includes about 800 Timber Products employees in Jackson and Josephine counties, according to company Vice President Roger Rutan. Another roughly 400 people work in the industry for Columbia Forest Products in Klamath Falls.

About 70 percent of North America's hardwood plywood is manufactured by companies based in Southern Oregon, according to Wyden's office. Often used in making cabinets, hardwood plywood has a softwood interior and a hardwood veneer exterior.

U.S. manufacturers want free and fair trade, said Phill Guay, a vice president at Columbia Forest.

"Just as important is that we develop and enforce measures so that all wood products imported in the U.S. are legally logged and sustainably logged," he said.

While hardwood plywood may be manufactured in China, the illegal logging to make those products occurs in Russia and on the African continent, he said.

"What is best for tax receipts is best for our industry, free trade, fair trade and legal logging everywhere," Guay said.

Both Gonyea and Guay called for the international support of environmentally friendly, sustainable forestry practices. They also urged closer inspections of Chinese hardwood plywood imports as well as enforcement of laws already in place to halt the illegal practices.

The federal government is investigating the complaints which Wyden raised last year, according to Vera Adams, executive director of commercial targeting and enforcement for the U.S. customs agency, and Tim Wineland, senior director of China Affairs for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Customs agents are sampling Chinese hardwood plywood, Adams testified. They will cross-check their findings to determine whether there is any connection to an earlier investigation of hardwood flooring from China, she said.

"We learned from the hardwood flooring operation that misclassification and misdescription in this industry is rampant," she said of the Chinese hardwood imports.

The U.S. needs to promote the fact that American wood products are harvested legally, said Tom Chamberlain, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO.

"The wood products industry can promote their work so that Americans concerned about illegal logging know that the 'Made in the USA' label means that the product was harvested legally," he said.

Chinese hardwood plywood often carries phony stamps of approval indicating it meets environmental and sustainability standards, added Ned Daly, vice president of U.S. operations for the Forest Stewardship Council, an international body that certifies that forests and wood products meet standards.

Wyden vowed to hold China's feet to the international fire until it stops the unfair trade practices.

"They are good-paying, family-wage jobs," he said of jobs in the region. "They are jobs I am not going to let go by the board."

He also noted that Chinese hardwood plywood imports further weaken the move to provide federal timber receipts to local counties.

"In my view, county payments and Chinese hardwood plywood are interconnected," he said. "Both involve the role and the responsibility of the federal government to ensure that timber-dependent communities have the opportunity to thrive.

"This is going to require a big push on our side — I intend to do that," he added.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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