Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, representing Defenders of Wildlife, Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, Kettle Range Conservation Group, and Pilchuck Audubon Society, filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court today against three federal agencies for their roles in negotiating the 1996 U.S.-Canada Softwood Lumber Agreement.
The Groups allege that the U.S. Trade Representative, U.S. Department of Commerce, and U.S. Department of Interior failed to comply with environmental and endangered species safeguards when they negotiated the trade agreement. The lawsuit seeks application of the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act and U.S. Endangered Species Act to the Softwood Lumber Agreement. This would require the U.S. Trade Representative and the Department of Commerce to identify and address the impacts that the Softwood Lumber Agreement is having upon globally significant Canadian forests, which in turn would shed public scrutiny on the effects overcutting has upon shared waters and wildlife habitat.
The Canadian Council of Forest industries estimates that one acre of forest is being cut in Canada every 13 seconds and the British Columbia government estimates that the ancient forests of the province are being felled at a rate 40 percent faster than is deemed sustainable.
The Softwood Lumber Agreement is the result of a long-standing subsidies dispute between the NAFTA trading partners that allows Canada to export to the United States almost 15 billion board feet of lumber annually duty-free, the vast majority of which comes from British Columbia's magnificent forests. The amount of British Columbia duty-free lumber allowed to come into the United States each year is exactly the amount that British Columbia's own forest service says is being overcut annually. The plaintiff groups point to voluminous scientific evidence that demonstrates the devastating impact timber overcutting in Canada is having on transboundary ecosystems and the wildlife species that depend on them.
"Wholesale deforestation is being fueled by wholesale lumber prices," said NWEA's Conservation Director Joe Scott. "The present Softwood Lumber Agreement is a bad idea for trees, grizzly bears, salmonids, woodland caribou, and many other species. The United States is importing cheap lumber but exporting extinction, even as we strive to protect American forests and the wildlife we share with Canada."
The environmental litigants are critical of the way international trade agreements essentially ignore domestic conservation standards. Last week, an arbitration panel was announced under the Softwood Lumber Agreement to examine the U.S. complaint that the British Columbia provincial government unfairly lowered stumpage fees this year to attract more lumber production.
The lumber is then flooded into the American market at very cheap prices. U.S. trade officials will not disclose whether lax Canadian environmental standards are being raised in conjunction with the lowering of B.C. stumpage fees.
"Trade agreements should not be ploys to avoid environmental protection," asserted Defenders Legal Director William Snape. "The natural resource protections we seek are so basic that a failure to reach a common understanding with the trade negotiators raises profound questions about the misnamed 'free trade' agenda, which is causing irreplaceable loss to our natural heritage."
"The Softwood Lumber Agreement is fueling the overcut of Canadian forests by allowing huge volumes of softwood lumber into the United States duty-free," said Earthjustice litigator Patti Goldman. "Our laws require thorough review of such impacts, particularly where weak environmental standards exacerbate the devastation."
Unlike the United States, neither the national Canadian government nor the British Columbia provincial government possess an endangered species law. In addition, the B.C. provincial Forest Practices Code, which was allegedly intended to address environmental discrepancies between the United States and the Canadian province, is weaker than existing U.S. law and was just recently weakened further by the B.C. government. For example, clearcuts in the interior forest of British Columbia can be as large as 100 football fields.
Similarly, streamside protections standards in the province pale in comparison to U.S. standard.
Concludes an anonymous Canadian conservationist, "The B.C. and Canadian government are very fond of saying that we have world-class environmental standards, but the reality is that we possess world-class spin doctors. We've got a crisis in our British Columbia forests and a major cause is the Softwood Lumber Agreement."
Copies of the complaint, Defenders of Wildlife et al. v. Department of Commerce et al. are available from Patti Goldman at Earthjustice. B-roll footage of impacted wildlife, as well as a briefing book, are available from NWEA, and photographs are available from both NWEA and Defenders.