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To the woodshed

October 20, 2005

IT BEGAN AS A SIMPLE "THANK YOU" call to Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin for Canada's aid to the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina. But by the end of the conversation, President Bush had gotten an earful about lumber tariffs. Martin's tirade -- front-page news in Canada -- was entirely justified.

Several panels created under the North American Free Trade Agreement have ruled that U.S. tariffs on Canadian lumber, imposed in 2002 and averaging about 21%, are illegal. The U.S. points to a ruling by the World Trade Organization that takes the opposite view.

But that decision is not yet final. At any rate, one of the main purposes of NAFTA is to provide a process to adjudicate disputes exactly like this one. Bush has suggested that the U.S. and Canada discuss the issue further, but the Canadians aren't interested. "The prime minister emphasized that it makes little sense to negotiate a victory that we've already won," a spokeswoman for Martin told The Times.

Adding a sense of urgency to this issue is the reconstruction of the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, which has tightened markets for building supplies and sent the price of construction materials sky-high. Construction firms in California estimate that Katrina could result in a 20% rise in the price of materials.

U.S. lumber importers, homebuilders and consumer groups have also sided with Canada. Yet the Bush administration insists on protecting the interests of U.S. lumber mills.

Aides for Bush and Martin described their talk as "candid," which is diplomatic code meaning they raised their voices. Their conversation, which took place last week, couldn't have come at a better time. If Martin can't persuade Bush to abide by NAFTA, maybe Hurricane Katrina will.

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