Wyden calls for investigation of Chinese logging practices
By MATTHEW DALY
Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- A Democratic senator called on the Bush administration to investigate alleged abuses by the Chinese logging industry that he said have damaged U.S. producers of hardwood used in furniture.
In letters to the U.S. trade representative and other officials, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon urged the administration to investigate practices such as subsidies of China's timber industry, possible fraudulent labeling of Chinese hardwood plywood, and illegal logging of Asian and African forests.
"Over the past few years, the U.S. hardwood plywood sector has experienced a dramatic downturn, which has put the entire U.S. industry in jeopardy," Wyden wrote, citing declines since 2003 in U.S. production, shipment volume and market share.
"At the same time, the Chinese hardwood plywood sector has been surging," Wyden said. "This dramatic growth in the Chinese industry - at the apparent expense of U.S. industry - is extremely troubling because it may be based on a number of illegal trade practices."
Wyden, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he would seek a hearing on the issue next year after Democrats take control of Congress.
A spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said her office had just received the letter "and will review it carefully."
Schwab, the Bush administration's top trade negotiator, said in a speech Tuesday that President Bush hopes to achieve bipartisan support for an aggressive trade liberalization agenda in the next Congress, even with Democrats in control.
Schwab warned against any move to erect protectionist barriers against imports, something that critics say are needed in the face of record-high trade deficits they contend are costing American jobs.
Many Democrats campaigned against Bush's trade policies this fall, saying the administration had failed to do enough to halt the loss of manufacturing jobs to low-wage foreign countries such as China. Since Bush took office in 2001, the United States has lost nearly 3 million manufacturing jobs.
Joseph Gonyea III, chief operating officer of Oregon-based Timber Products Co., said he and others in the United States support free trade - as long as it is fair.
"This is not a Republican or Democrat issue. This is about protecting good jobs in communities throughout our country, by ensuring that business is not only done in free trade but in fair trade," Gonyea said.
About 70 percent of North America's hardwood plywood - such as oak, birch, maple and cherry - is manufactured by companies headquartered in Oregon, according to the Hardwood Plywood & Veneer Association, an industry group. Hardwood products include cabinetry, furniture and flooring.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not return a telephone call Wednesday.
China is one of the world's fastest-growing producers of hardwood plywood, with total exports topping $13 billion last year.
A June report by the U.S. International Trade Commission said that "a relatively large portion of China's log imports may be from questionable sources." The report estimated that as much as half of China's hardwood log imports from Russia and West Africa are from suspicious or illegal sources. Much of that wood is processed at low cost and then exported to the United States and other countries.
Companies buy the cheaper product to make furniture or flooring.
Bill Altman, president of the Virginia-based hardwood trade group, applauded Wyden for seeking an investigation of Chinese logging practices. U.S. companies must comply with relatively strict health, labor and environmental laws, and are at an economic disadvantage when countries such as China compound cheap labor with illegal logging, Altman said.
"There's no question there's a problem," he said.
On the Net: U.S. trade representative: http://www.ustr.gov 
Hardwood Plywood & Veneer Association: http://www.hpva.org/