2020 is not the year anyone expected. So much, so fast, so unpredictable. As I write this article, it is hard to know if it will still be relevant by the time you read it. The hardwood industry has certainly borne the brunt of a very tough few years. The negative impacts on our businesses caused by the rise of competing construction materials, the ongoing trade dispute with China, and continued environmental misdirection about wood products, in general, carried over from 2019. Just when things seemed to be trending in a positive direction, the COVID-19 crisis effectively shut down the global economy, stalling domestic construction and international exports.
Along with everyone else, the Hardwood Federation had to adapt quickly to the new reality. The Federation team set up home offices and found we were working more than ever as the administration and Congress tried to figure out ways to halt damage to the economy from the spread of the virus. Virus response measures came fast and furious from Capitol Hill, and we did our best to stay on top of things including:
• Working to ensure hardwood related industries were designated as essential at the federal level.
• Providing the latest information about federal relief measures to the industry, including updates on the popular Paycheck Protection Program.
• Working with our D.C.-based forest products allied associations to identify additional measures Congress should consider to support the wood products industry, including the hardwood sector. The Hardwood Federation and HFPAC Boards of Directors agreed upon a set of recommendations specifically targeting the hardwood side of forest products, including:
• Extending liability protections to businesses bringing workers back post COVID-19.
• Directing the Small Business Administration to reverse its decision to limit Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) to $150,000. Existing law authorizes EIDL loans of up to $2 million which, is essential to industry members.
• Extending a sustainable building tax credit to building and construction projects, including U.S. wood products used in these projects.
• Increasing government purchases of U.S. wood products, including structural and finished products, for federal building and transportation projects.
• Funding necessary research to approve increased use of U.S. hardwoods in U.S. military truck beds, replacing imported tropical woods.
• Providing funding to research to increase domestic and international consumer demand for U.S. hardwood products, including the environmental and home health benefits of hardwood product use.
These concepts were shared with U.S. Senate leaders who are expected to consider additional COVID-19-related assistance programs in late summer or early fall. Regardless of where Congress goes with these policy directions, we believe they do form the basis of a Hardwood Federation platform for 2021 – a year that could turn out to be just as unpredictable as 2020.
The November elections will be like no other; that is the one certainty we are willing to predict. The White House is up for grabs, as is, it seems, the U.S. Senate. Pundits predict the House will remain under Democratic control, but today’s political climate often is difficult to read and can change rapidly. Despite what polls may say at any given moment, the only moment that matters is that moment voters pull the lever (or lick the stamp) and submit their choices.
We hope that we will be able to move from crisis mitigation to the strategic thinking about how to best affect federal policy for the balance of 2020 and 2021. Trade certainly will remain on our radar as will increasing the domestic consumption of hardwoods. Congress is hard at work fashioning another highway bill; the current one expires September 30. The House and Senate remain far apart on their approaches to addressing our nation’s infrastructure needs, particularly in how to pay for constructing and maintaining our network of roads, bridges, and ports. Expectations are that Congress ultimately will vote to extend the current highway bill for another year to move the difficult negotiations into a window past the November election. The Hardwood Federation will continue to work on provisions that may be included in a reauthorization bill that make truck transportation of logs and finished products more efficient and cost-effective for our sector.
Promoting active forest management on our federal forest lands will continue to be a priority for the Federation. In June, Congress approved legislation (the Great Outdoors Act) permanently authorizing and funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund, among other things. We are hopeful that the bipartisanship that made the enactment of this bill possible will carry over into the forest management space, where substantive action is needed to address the hazardous fuel loads, insects, and diseases afflicting our overstocked public forests.
Advocacy around endangered species will continue to be on our plate. The industry secured a major victory a couple of years ago from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) that has allowed forestry operations to continue largely unfettered in bat habitat. That decision has been challenged legally and may be overturned in the coming months. Because of this, it is essential that states and regions complete habitat conservation plans (HCP) in the next 18 months as a recent court decision directed the USFWS to reassess the listing status of the northern long-eared bat. It is anticipated that the USFWS will change the current “threatened” status to “endangered” following the assessment. If this occurs, an HCP would need to be in place in order for forest management operations to proceed. The Lake States is taking the lead on HCP development and it is anticipated that their HCP will serve as a model for other states and regions to use once it is finalized.
Regardless of who wins the White House, Senate, or House of Representatives, the Hardwood Federation must be ready and willing to work with the political leadership in Washington to affect legislation that helps our industry grow and thrive. After such a tough few years, it would be nice to think that the coming months will be easier and that some meaningful policy will be passed, but that doesn’t seem likely. The slog through the election, and the actual number of working days, are simply prohibitive to getting much done at this time in this political climate. We will probably have to wait and see how the 2021 Congress shapes up and who is living in the White House to see any significant movement. However, the industry is strong and will survive. And, the Hardwood Federation will remain vigilant in fighting for you, your company, and your employees.