The president of a Canadian-owned lumber mill that received shipments of timber cut from Maine public lands says he’s unaware of the equipment fire that Gov. Paul LePage has used to justify diverting those shipments away from another company whose owners have been critical of the governor’s stance on softwood lumber tariffs.
Nicolas Fontaine, president of Fontaine Lumber, also says his mills never requested timber originally destined for mills owned by Jason and Chris Brochu, who last year engaged in a public dispute over the governor’s efforts to repeal some tariffs on Canadian softwood.
“We just ended up being the ones who got the logs,” Fontaine said. “That’s pretty much it. There was nothing special about it.”
Fontaine’s comments come amid an investigation by Legislature’s watchdog agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, or OPEGA. The probe was launched by the Government Oversight Committee this year after some lawmakers worried that the governor retaliated against the Brochus for saying last year that LePage was pursuing a “Canada-first” policy by joining Canadian officials in attempting to convince the Trump administration to create an exemption for some Canadian timber imports.
The oversight committee voted unanimously to initiate the investigation after the governor told the Legislature’s agriculture panel to refer its inquiries to OPEGA. It was during the meeting with the agriculture panel that LePage explained his administration’s decision to divert timber away from the Brochus’ mills in Dover-Foxcroft and Jackman.
“The reason we did what we did was because there was a fire in the woods. And a feller buncher burned and a mill was really close to shutting down. So we shifted some wood over,” LePage said.
The governor indicated that the burned feller buncher, which is used to cut and move trees, was responsible for delaying shipments to Fontaine’s Stratton Lumber, thereby putting the mill in danger of halting operations.
“I don’t know anything about the fire, to be honest with you,” Fontaine said during a recent interview. “I don’t know what that comment was about.”
A spokesman for state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
Fontaine did say that his company was running low on wood and that he hoped the state and other private landowners would be able to help. However, he said he never requested wood that was supposed to go to the Brochus.
The state regularly enters contracts with loggers to deliver wood harvested from public lands to lumber mills. Over 124,000 cords were harvested from public lands last year, according to an annual report by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The state received about $4 million from the sale of the publicly harvested wood.
Lumber mills have come to rely on purchases of public wood to help the mills stay in operation during times when logging activity can be interrupted by early thaws or mud season.
“It’s as important as any other type of wood that we receive,” Jason Brochu said.
Brochu said his company was supposed to receive about 10,000 tons from the Bureau of Public Lands last winter, and they received only 6,000 tons.
“Our reaction was disappointment. We started worrying about running out of wood,” he said.
The Brochus have declined to comment on the reasons why wood destined for their mills was diverted to Stratton Lumber. However, they say they will cooperate in the OPEGA investigation.
The OPEGA probe has been slowed by requests to investigate other matters, including a review of child welfare services. However, it could pick up momentum later in May.
Speculation that the LePage administration moved to punish the Brochus is rampant. But the governor flatly denied it during a tense exchange with lawmakers on the agriculture panel in March.
“At no time was I diverting wood to hurt the Brochus. Never,” he said.
He added, “Folks, I’ve had zero involvement. I have bigger fish to fry than to worry about what wood goes to any one mill.”
But some lawmakers, including Republican state Sen. Tom Saviello of Wilton, remain skeptical. Saviello, who also sits on the Government Oversight Committee that directs OPEGA, has said the public record suggests that the Brochus were punished because of their support for tariffs on Canadian softwood that the Trump administration put in place last year.
The Brochus are part of the U.S. Lumber Coalition, which has long been pushing for the tariffs to counter what it says are attempts by government-subsidized Canadian lumber producers to get the upper hand in the U.S. market.
But LePage, citing Maine’s unique cross-border relationship with Canadian lumber companies, says the tariffs will increase lumber prices and lead to lost jobs. The governor made those predictions in a radio address in September, and he said “corporate greed from a coalition of big lumber companies” — the U.S. Lumber Coalition — “has already sent those prices skyrocketing.”
The Brochus responded in a newspaper column a couple weeks later. They wrote that LePage’s claims were “illogical and irresponsible.”
“Worse yet, [the governor] used the devastation of the recent hurricanes to call for a Canada-first trade policy, risking the jobs of hundreds of thousands of American workers,” they wrote.
LePage released another statement before the dispute faded from public view.
“The Brochus are free to act out of personal greed and self-interest, and they can write as many articles as they want, but their position is not in the best interest of Maine companies and jobs,” he wrote.
LePage has continued lobbying the Trump administration on softwood tariff issue — an effort that’s won praise from Canadian officials.
In February, he accompanied New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant and a delegation from the province to discuss the tariffs with officials from the U.S. Commerce Department in Washington.
According to the official readout of the meeting, LePage said the tariffs were causing 500 people “going on the unemployment rolls each week.”
It’s unclear how the governor arrived at the figure, given it would likely spike Maine’s historic low unemployment rate and quickly decimate a logging workforce that the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine pegged at 4,600 in a 2016 study.
The governor has personal and professional ties to New Brunswick. He lived there for about 10 years while married to his first wife, Sharon Crabbe, whose family owns sawmills just over the border of Aroostook County.
The governor’s eldest daughter, Lisa LePage, once held a position in an economic development agency overseen by some of the same New Brunswick officials that the governor accompanied in that D.C. meeting with commerce officials.
Those connections, the timeline of the public dispute with the Brochus and the governor’s reputation for punishing foes in both rhetoric and deed have clouded the LePage administration’s decision to divert the timber from the Brochus to Fontaine’s Stratton Lumber.
Fontaine, whose company owns a mill in Maine and in Woburn, Quebec, is also critical of the softwood tariffs.
Ultimately, it will be up to OPEGA and the Government Oversight Committee to sort out the circumstances that prompted the timber diversion. It’s unclear how the investigation will proceed, but several members of the oversight committee have suggested that subpoenas and sworn testimony may be necessary.
LePage predicted as much when he told lawmakers on the agriculture panel to refer the issue to OPEGA.
“At least they have the right to people under oath and they have subpoena powers — because you’re gonna need ‘em,” he said.
The oversight committee has postponed a meeting scheduled for Friday, but it’s expected to meet later in May.