Gordon Gamble of Wagner felt there was something different — in a good way — about this year’s legislative breakfast in Farmington.
“For the first time in one of these meetings I actually met someone from my district, which is really good because I’ve been trying to get candidates to come to this from our district and they haven’t,” Gamble said. “So I was really thrilled.”
“I think they were starving for information about the industry,” Executive Director Patrick Strauch said. “All that they had heard was from the news coverage about mill closures, so providing some perspective was pretty important.”
This was the first time MFPC has held joint breakfasts with SWOAM, Professional Logging Contractors of Maine (PLC) and the Maine Pulp & Paper Association (MPPA) and a number of candidates said they were pleased to see the industry speaking as a united force.
“It’s really helpful when the industry can be unified,” said Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, “and come to the Legislature with a common ‘ask’ and express what their common needs are.”
The joint breakfasts also worked out well for the industry, Gamble said, “I think that promoted better questions, better discussions, less about ‘This is my name and this is my platform.’”
Dana Doran, PLC executive director, saying “I was very pleased by the turnout from all corners of the state and the recognition by those in attendance how important the entire forest products value chain is to the Maine economy. These breakfasts and the solidarity of the industry is vital to positive outcomes beginning in January with the 128th Legislature.”
Tom Doak, executive director of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine (SWOAM), also was encouraged by the candidates’ level of interest and the thoughtful questions they asked.
“Watching them, I thought they were listening to what was being said,” Doak said. “And there were more people that I’d never seen before; it wasn’t the same crowd that we see all the time. That’s always a good sign.”
There were questions about harvesting on public land and the status of the federal EDAT report (expected by the end of October). There was considerable discussion about a political ad that Rep. Tom Skolfield, R-Weld said “defined the Tree Growth Program as something that only a bunch of loggers should be involved with.” Doran told him the PLC had asked that the ad be taken off the air.
“It wouldn’t matter which party was playing it, I think that’s a bad ad for the Tree Growth Program,” Skolfield said.
There were suggestions that the industry tell the public about the value and importance of the Tree Growth program and about statewide efforts to manage Maine’s forests sustainably.
“I feel reassured by this conversation that in fact the forests in Maine are being well managed and that’s a good thing,” said Lois Reckitt of South Portland, Democratic candidate in District 31. “But I’m worried about public attitudes about the forest, particularly in places like my own, where there’s very little understanding, I’m certain, of the role of the forest industry in the state.”
Each breakfast began with coffee, the greetings of old friends and the introductions of new ones. Before the program even began, many discussions had taken place about the forest products industry.
“The breakfast was well attended, with a good mix of candidates and members,” said Peter Triandafillou, who attended in Old Town. “Candidate response to the economic report was positive, and several said it needs more distribution to counter the ‘dead industry’ assumption.”
Strauch started the joint presentation with the facts and figures about the industry, followed by Doran, who spoke about logging, and Doak, who profiled small woodland owners and their key concerns. All three talked about the industry’s issues in the upcoming legislative session, including the Tree Growth Tax program.
Strauch highlighted the 2016 University of Maine research on the industry’s estimated $8.5 billion economic impact. Most candidates turned quickly to their copy of MPFC’s Maine’s Forest Economy report to see how many of the 33,538 forest products related jobs were located in their county.
Wendy Wolf of West Boothbay Harbor, an independent candidate in District 89, quickly noted the 170 jobs in Lincoln County, then followed with a question on Doak’s presentation, asking why only 27 percent of small woodland owners have management plans and what could be done to boost that number.
Doak cited the cost — “depending on the size of the property, a comprehensive management plan could be $1000 to 2,500” — the fact that there are few state foresters to aid small woodland owners, and that the number of small landowners who use foresters “has not changed in decades. We’re stuck on those numbers. We probably need some new and innovative ways o to reach more of those folks because we haven’t moved the needle in a long time.”
One way to increase the number who have management plans, he said, is to encourage more to participate the Tree Growth Tax Program, which requires a management plan. Another avenue would be to train foresters to write plans that landowners can more easily understand.
“I think foresters – and I am one — make the management plans too complicated for most landowners,” Doak said. “They’re writing for a forester, instead of a landowner. SWOAM members often ask me to interpret their management plan when they get it. If you can’t read it when you get it, then somebody wrote the wrong plan for that landowner. We tend to be very technical and we think we’re doing a great job by having a plan with all these things in it, when the landowner needs something simpler.”
Doran fielded a number of questions about logging, logger training and biomass issues. As he reported on the work of the Biomass Commission and also praised legislators who supported the industry’s efforts at the last session.
“We had a major biomass debate this last session and I would say that the southern Maine legislators really stood up on behalf of the forest products industry during that debate,” Doran said. “I was extremely proud and impressed with them, because there is an understanding that rural Maine does have an impact on urban Maine and urban Maine does have an impact on rural Maine. And we do need to see the forest through the trees. It was good to see.”
In Farmington, MPPA President Donna Cassese of Sappi also answered energy questions about biomass and gas.
“I do want to emphasize that from the paper mill perspective and any manufacturing perspective, we really do need increased gas line capacity to the state and not just one line, but two lines so that there is competition,” Cassese said. “That is very much a part of any effort to bring energy costs down. I totally agree that the biomass and some of the T&D (transmission and delivery) intricacies and costs, but increased gas to the state not only benefits the manufacturers, but also every homeowner who is able to afford to (not clear) cheaper heat for homes. So that is pretty important for everybody here.”
The themes and questions were similar from Gray, to Farmington, to Old Town and Fort Kent. Candidates were interested in the economic figures about how important the forest products industry is to the entire state and wanted to know how the Legislature can help it stay way. For members, it not only was a great opportunity to catch up on the news and meet the candidates, but there also was bonus, said Brian Flewelling of Key Bank.
“All we hear is the doom and gloom, but we certainly didn’t hear that today,” Flewelling said. “We heard about how we’re moving on into the next decade. It made us feel a lot better.”