February 27, 2002 11:00 pm

A union representative of the Western Council of Industrial Workers is making the rounds of sawmills in the West to try to drum up support for retaining tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber imported into the United States.

Bill Little, a logger from Lewis County, Washington, who works out of the Portland office for the WCIW, was speaking at Elgin this week and plans to be at the mill in La Grande, both with Boise Cascade employees, within the next two weeks.

Little is seeking signatures on petitions he plans to present to congressmen in the areas where he speaks to millworkers.

The petitions will ask congressmen to work for a softwood lumber agreement between Canada and the United States that is fair to American workers. Little and others say the Canadian government essentially subsidizes sawmills in Canada by providing logs cheaper from the timber growing on Canadian government land. Canadas stumpage rates amount to an export subsidy, which is banned under World Trade Organization rules, U.S. producers maintain.

To try to offset this subsidy, the U.S. government in August threatened to restore a 19.3 percent tariff or countervailing duty on lumber imported into the states from Canada. Then in October, an additional 12.6 percent antidumping duty was attached to the imports when it was felt the Canadians were unfairly dumping timber on the American market.

U.S. and Canadian negotiators met in Ottawa early last week, but reports were that they remained far apart in resolving the issue. Negotiators agreed to meet again this week in Washington, but no firm date was set.

Unless the century-old dispute is settled soon, the U.S. Commerce Department has threatened to reimpose the severe duties on March 21.

The almost 32 percent duty will help to offset the subsidy, but 52 mills that shut down in the West last year were ones where the shutdown can be positively linked to the Canadian import issue, Little said.

Its a fairness issue and a job issue. And there is some immediacy. We just want to see the final duty set.

Little plans to meet with the staff of Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., in a couple of weeks. He wants to have as many signatures as he can get locally by March 15.

He said the current stumpage price in Canada is about 28 percent of whats paid in the U.S.

The U.S. has an opportunity to negotiate a long-term agreement and should not cave in to Canada without getting the best deal possible for the American worker, Little said.

Canada has appealed to the WTO, where it has won on the issue several times.

The softwood issue is of such importance that it has involved discussions between Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and President George W. Bush, The Associated Press reported.

From Observer and AP reports