Buzzsaw of opposition fells plans for lumber promotion program

Tony Woodyard, co-owner of Twin River Hardwoods Inc., measures logs on Monday, March 10, 2008, at the sawmill in Southside, W.Va.
Tony Woodyard, co-owner of Twin River Hardwoods Inc., measures logs on Monday, March 10, 2008, at the sawmill in Southside, W.Va. ASSOCIATED PRESS

A controversial plan to promote U.S. hardwood lumber is now sawdust, at least for the time being.

Following a fierce and extended debate, the Agriculture Department on Wednesday formally unplugged the proposal for a new industry-funded program touting the nation’s hardwood lumber and plywood.

The decision is a blow to North Carolina-based Columbia Forest Products, Georgia-based Atlanta Hardwood Corp. and other firms whose executives have long sought a research and promotion program similar to the ones serving the milk, beef and cotton industries, among others.

“We were disappointed that the checkoff opponents were not willing to have the industry take a vote on a more streamlined . . . proposal, leaving (the Agriculture Department) little choice but to terminate (the proposal),” said Grace Terpstra, the proposal’s project manager.

But the proposal’s withdrawal heartens opponents, who flooded the Agriculture Department with hundreds of criticisms and objections over the past several years.

“I was pleased to see the system works,” Jeff Hanks, owner of a lumber operation near Danbury, N.C., said in an interview Wednesday. “There has been significant opposition to this from the start.”

In its Federal Register notice Wednesday, the USDA noted that a “significant majority” of the 1,300-plus public comments about the proposed hardwood lumber program voiced opposition. Officials further noted “outstanding substantive questions” remained, as well as numerous proposed changes to the original idea.

“Termination of this proceeding,” the department stated, “will allow USDA to engage fully with all interested parties to discuss and consider the evolving needs of the industry going forward.”

A similar effort on behalf of the hardwood lumber industry also failed in the mid-1990s. In both cases, skeptics questioned the alleged benefits of the promotion program, along with its costs and compulsory nature.

The Agriculture Department currently recognizes nearly two dozen research and promotion orders, managed by the likes of the Softwood Lumber Board, the National Pork Board and the Cattlemen’s Beef Board.

Each is funded by industry fees, following a public comment period and approval in an industry referendum. Some of the marketing campaigns have since become classics, marked by catchphrases like “Got Milk?” and “Cotton, the Fabric of our Lives.”

At times, though, the promotion proposals have caught flak. Conservative commentators, several years ago, gleefully bashed what they misleadingly called “Obama’s Christmas tree tax.” The gun-shy Agriculture Department initially retreated, but the industry-funded National Christmas Tree Promotion Board has since been established.

There are currently 2,804 hardwood lumber manufacturers and 36 hardwood plywood manufacturers in the United States, according to industry officials.

The 83 varieties of hardwood trees include the sturdy likes of red and white oak, hard maple and sweet gum, harvested in states including Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as well as the red alder and maple trees found in Oregon and Washington state.

As originally proposed in 2011, the new hardwood lumber program would have raised about $10 million annually from fees charged to lumber and lumber-product companies, as well as hardwood plywood manufacturers. Small firms would have been exempted.

The program was designed to boost the industry, which had suffered through a nearly 50 percent reduction in the U.S. use of hardwood products between 1999 and 2012.

“The hardwood lumber industry needs a joint marketing effort to promote our industry to help avoid the pitfalls of the past down cycles,” Lonnie Suiter, a Morganton, N.C., resident and hardwood lumber industry veteran, wrote the Agriculture Department.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10