The hardwood industry is stepping up its pleas for the Trump administration to end the ongoing trade war with China.
Industry advocates say they have been hard hit by the retaliatory tariffs and are putting new pressure on lawmakers and administration officials.
Nathan Jeppson, CEO of Northwest Hardwoods, was in Washington, D.C., this week to meet with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, as well as lawmaker offices, to push for relief for his industry.
Since the start of the trade war, his company has closed two facilities, one in Virginia and one in Washington, decreased the shifts at other facilities, and had layoffs at the corporate level. In total, they’ve laid off 225 of their 1,600 workforce.
“I don’t think people understood actually the job loss potential here and where these jobs are. You think about our industry, we are where the woods are so we are in rural Pennsylvania, rural West Virginia. I can’t even get cell coverage at most of our mills,” Jeppson said.
The hardwood industry was exporting about $2 billion to China. When China responded to President Trump’s tariffs on Chinese imports in July 2018 with retaliatory tariffs, they included 10 species of U.S. hardwoods.
The industry saw a “dramatic impact,” Dana Lee Cole, executive director of the Hardwood Federation, told The Hill.
“We’ve seen about a 43 percent decline in volume being shipped to China,” Cole said. “There’s been domestic impacts, prices have gone down on lumber, there’s a back log. It doesn’t even financially make any sense for a lot of mills now to process the logs they get in because it would cost them more to process them than they can sell them for.”
The Hardwood Federation represents 28 hardwood organizations and trade associations in the U.S.
Jeppson said most jobs in the hardwood industry have been around for decades and many towns were built around companies.
“We employ communities and we can’t move our facilities to Mexico or somewhere else. We have to be where the trees are,” he said.
Members of the House wrote a letter to the administration in July pushing for the hardwood industry to be included in future assistance packages for those hit by the trade war. A bipartisan group of 38 members signed on to stress the affect the trade war has had on small businesses and rural communities.
A leader on the letter, Rep. Anne Kuster (D-N.H.), said the hardwood industry in her home state and across the country has been hit hard.
“Hardwood is a critical part of our forest products economy, and large and small producers alike need access to Chinese markets in order to sustain their businesses,” she told The Hill in a statement on Wednesday. “Although there are hurdles in this process, I remain committed to working with the Administration and colleagues from both sides of the aisle to provide essential tariff relief to this industry.”
In June and July, the Hardwood Federation held “emergency fly ins when things started to get really bad,” Cole said.
“We had a lot of sympathy and a lot of empathy from folks but from the administration’s point of view, they’ve definitely got a point of view that they believe they’re on the right path with China.
“From the industry perspective, I think there’s a lot of agreement that China needs to be dealt with but they’re just kind of wondering why it’s on the backs of the hardwood industry,” she added.
The Hardwood Federation sent a proposal for a relief package to the administration in October but is still waiting to hear back.
“A lot of folks are very concerned about whether or not they’ll be able to survive the negotiating process unless something gets done fairly quickly here. That would be a tremendous relief,” Cole said.
While the Agriculture Department governs parts of the industry, hardwoods are listed as an industrial product by the World Trade Organization and oversight is through the Commerce Department.
“The Hardwood Lumber industry has received more than $5 million through the USDA’s Agricultural Trade Promotion Program, one leg of the President’s Support Package for Farmers,” a USDA spokesperson told The Hill in a statement. “However, lumber trade jurisdictionally falls within the Department of Commerce and so the Department of Agriculture is not providing additional assistance beyond trade promotion to the sector.”
USDA’s Agricultural Trade Promotion Program was created to help with damages done to industries from retaliatory tariffs on US goods.
Those in the industry worry that their plight is being forgotten about.
“A lot of people are talking about soy and farmers, not many were talking about and still not many are talking about the size and impact this has in our industry,” Jeppson said.
Cole said the cost of the trade war could be high.
“A great American industry could disappear as a result of these trade negotiations,” she said.