How Trump’s ‘America First’ Trade Policy Is Reshaping N.H.’s Lumber Industry

Nov 8, 2017

Jack Riendeau, a logger from Colebrook, on a jobsite in Vermont.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

President Donald Trump was elected last year with a promise to put America first: to renegotiate or possibly scrap trade deals he argues aren’t benefiting the United States.

In northern New Hampshire, where the state bumps against the Canadian border, those policies are now playing out in the lumber industry, leaving loggers and sawmills on both sides of the border adjusting to a new economic landscape.

(Editor’s note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)

If Jack Riendeau is one thing, it is generous.

“You want a cigarette?”

Cigarettes, his wife’s homemade cookies, potato chips. Spend a day with Riendeau, and he’ll give you a share of whatever he’s got.

Riendeau is a logger in New Hampshire’s North Country. He’s approaching 70 years old with a thick head of hair, a Vietnam vet, a husband and father, and someone for whom formal education was never a priority.

“I wanted to drink, chase women. So I quit school and did it.”

I met Riendeau on a 50-acre parcel of land off a dirt road in the town of Lunenburg, Vermont. He’d been hired by the landowner to harvest the trees, with both getting a cut of the proceeds. After working the site for a few weeks with a small crew, it looks like a tornado has swept through, with limbs and stumps scattered in its wake.

Riendeau driving the Love Rocket, his eighteen-wheeler loaded with spruce and fir trees.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

Today, Riendeau is loading lengths of spruce and fir onto the back of his eighteen-wheeler.

In the industry, spruce and fir, along with pine, are called softwood lumber. Sawmills turn these softwood logs into two-by-fours and other dimensional building products.

The logs on the back of Riendeau’s truck--a truck that I should mention has the name “The Love Rocket” stenciled on the side--could next go to one of two sawmills in the region. He can drive the wood southeast to Milan, New Hampshire, or he can steer the Love Rocket north to Canada.

Both mills will pay Riendeau about the same thing for his logs. Based on what’s on the truck right now, he thinks he’ll get about $1,500.

Riendeau’s decision about which mill to go to, therefore, usually comes down to distance. For this job, that’s the Canadian mill, called Marcel Lauzon, Inc, which, conveniently, is just two miles from the international border. A location perfect for buying up American lumber.

Stolen Money  

This has been a roller coaster year in the world of softwood lumber--a competitive, low-margin, high stakes world, which impacts everyone from homebuyers to hardware stores.

Back in April, the U.S. Commerce Department threw down an industry-rattling import duty on Canadian softwood. All the two-by-fours made in Canada that get shipped south and sold in the U.S. were suddenly subject to import taxes that ran higher than 25 percent. The Commerce Department says it has evidence that the Canadian mills are getting unfair subsidies from the Canadian government, allowing them make more money on each piece of lumber.

The Commerce Department’s decision is one of the loudest and clearest examples of an ‘America First’ trade policy backed by President Trump.

Our man Jack Riendeau, a mere sapling in this industry, is one of many folks caught in the middle. I asked him his thoughts on the tariffs.

“Well, I think the Canadians are being...subsidized up there by their government, so I think Trump is just making it fair. That’s what it sounds like, but I don’t know the whole detail of it,” says Riendeau.

After he finishes loading, Riendeau and I climb into the Love Rocket, and head north to deliver his logs to the Marcel Lauzon mill, which is currently owned and managed by Jean-Pierre Rioux.

Softwood logs await their fate on at the Marcel Lauzon sawmill in Quebec.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

This facility opened in the late 1960s. Rioux says the reason why his father-in-law built this mill so close to the border is because most of the logs they buy come from New England.

“Our logs come from the states, 75 percent, around that. And the rest from Quebec, from private land,” says Rioux.

Rioux adds in that part about private land because it is a really important point. Much of the dispute between the American and the Canadians has to do with where the Canadian mills source their logs. In Canada, there are government-owned parcels called Crown Lands. The U.S. argues the trees on those Crown Lands are priced far below market rate, giving, in theory, the Canadian sawmills which buy wood from the Crown Lands an advantage. That’s at the heart of the new import tariffs.

Rioux, however, argues that he doesn’t ever buy from the Crown Lands.

“None, no subsidies at all,” he says.

Rioux says the lumber market in New England is very different from the Pacific Northwest, where large sawmills in British Columbia do buy from the Crown Lands.

He says the tariffs this year have cost him $800,000.

“Stolen money.”

This is not the first time Canadian sawmills have had to pay a tariff, but what is unique this time is that the mills along the U.S. border in Quebec have usually been granted an exemption. The U.S. has acknowledged that these mills aren’t getting their logs from the Crown Lands, and they haven’t made them pay, but this time around, there is no exemption for Rioux.

'We Need To Take Care of Our Own'  

The Milan Lumber Company is nestled along the western bank of the Androscoggin River in Milan, New Hampshire.

The sales manager here is named Jethro Poulin, a soft-spoken guy who worked his way up from running a saw to running corporate accounts.

Poulin says the Commerce Department’s decision is the latest in a deep history of shots fired between the two countries.

“It has been going on for 100 years,” he says, only slightly exaggerating. “If you look back, there have been complaints about this for a long, long time. I don’t know if we will ever straighten it out, to be honest, because there are two different philosophies between the countries.”

Jethro Poulin, sales manager for the Milan Lumber Company, during a tour of the facility.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

Right now, tensions are especially high. The tariff announced earlier this year won’t get a final up or down decision by the U.S. International Trade Council until December, but the Canadian government is furious with the U.S., and is likely to mount a challenge.

Poulin says while his sawmill didn’t join in the original complaint filed with the Commerce Department, he sees the tariff as a way to simply level the playing field.

“We need to take care of our own,” says Poulin.

We need to take care of our own. It is a strong sentiment, but on the ground, in this small corner of the economy, nobody wants to make enemies.

Poulin stresses that there is no bad blood with his competitor across the border, Jean-Pierre Rioux. For Jack Riendeau, it is important for both mills to be financially successful, because that means they’ll be hungry for his logs.

During our visit to Quebec, it’s clear Riendeau and Rioux, men from opposite sides of the border, do get along well.

Jack Riendeau and Jean-Pierre Rioux chatting in the parking lot of the Marcel Lauzon sawmill.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

“We never had fights,” says Riendeau.

“If we have problem, we talk. Fix it, you know,” counters Rioux.

While the old friends chat in the parking lot, overhead two flags blow in the wind. A Canadian flag, and an American one.

“The border should be just over there,” Rioux says playfully, pointing to the far edge of his parking lot.

Riendeau says, “you would be in America. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

“Much less trouble,” the Canadian responds.