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After some of the toughest years in the long history of Maine’s forest products industry, a new, stronger forest economy is emerging thanks to investments of about $1 billion.

Help solve the mystery of Maine Forest Products Week

President Dwight Eisenhower proclaims the first National Forest Products Week in 1960.

By Roberta Scruggs, MFPC communications director

Can you help solve a 59-year-old mystery? Why has Maine, with one of the nation’s oldest forest product industries, only celebrated Forest Products Week twice in the past six decades? And why did the state celebrate in 1984 and 1985?

The 34-year gap between celebrations came to light because the Maine Forest Products Council (MFPC) asked Gov. Janet Mills to proclaim Oct. 21-26, 2019 as Maine Forest Products week, in conjunction with National Forest Products Week, and she agreed.

The Council requested the proclamation with two goals in mind. First to show our neighbors across Maine that the forest products industry is rebounding from a series of paper mill closures from 2014 to 2016 — with more than a billion dollars in investments over the past few years — and also to let them know that there are forest-related businesses and jobs (more than 33,000) in every county in the state, according to University of Maine research. Maine Forest Industry At A Glance

Most states with forest products industries have been celebrating since 1960, when Congress passed a joint resolution and President Dwight Eisenhower signed a proclamation, calling on the people of the United States to celebrate National Forest Products Week each year beginning with the third Sunday in October “with activities and ceremonies designed to focus attention on the importance of our forests and forest products to the Nation’s economy and welfare.” From Wisconsin to Florida to Oregon, there are festivities during the third week of October to highlight forestry people, products and, of course, the economic impact of the industry.

Nationwide, forestry-related businesses support (direct, indirect and induced impacts) 2.9 million total jobs and are associated with $128.1 billion in total payroll, according to a 2019 study by Forest2Market for the National Alliance of Forest Landowners (NAFO).[1]  

Nevertheless, for reasons still unknown, celebrations have been rare in Maine, even though our forest products industry is older than our nation. Starting in 1605, the availability and high quality of white pine played an important part in the development and economy of the region that would become Maine. Yet the only consistent acknowledgement of Forest Products Week during the third week of October appears to be in the Bangor Daily News, which for decades has published a special forest products section. 

Maine Forest Products Council members with long memories and extensive knowledge of the state’s forest products industry had no idea why this national event has hardly been celebrated here, including consulting forester Fred Huntress; retired UMaine professor Max McCormick; industry analyst Lloyd Irland; state forester Doug Denico, and Ted Johnston, former MFPC executive director.

Maine’s incredibly dogged reference librarians filled in some facts. Alex Burnett, at the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library, found the first hard evidence there had ever been a Maine Forest Products Week celebration, but it took some work.

“This isn’t easy to research, especially gubernatorial proclamations and especially before the 1990s, and therefore our research may not be comprehensive,” Burnett emailed. “We searched the entire Legislative Record back to 1897 and found no mention of a Maine Forest Products Week.”

Jimmy Robbins, 11, of Searmont, toots the horn of a while Tracy Hartford waits outside of a lumber truck outside in the University of Maine-Augusta Parking lot. This is National Forest Products Week, proclaimed by Gov. Joseph Brennan, in recognition of the importance of the forest industry to Maine. (KJ Staff photo by Cheryl Denz).

However, he did unearth one long, exciting paragraph in the Maine Department of Conservation newsletter for October 17, 1984.

“National Forest Products Week is being observed through the nation October 21-27, and gets underway in Maine on October 21 with a parade of forest industry vehicles and gear beginning at 2:00 PM. The parade will start at the Turnpike Mall and travel to the Augusta Civic Center where Governor Joseph E. Brennan’s Maine Forest Products Week proclamation will be read and representatives from the Maine Forest Service and forest industry will make brief remarks. People are invited to the Civic Center or to view the parade as it travels east on Western Avenue to Capital Street, then north on State Street and Mt. Vernon Avenue to the Civic Center parking lot. A Special Forest Products Week Supplement in the Bangor Daily News, coordinated by Marshall Wiebe, will be published on October 19.”

A parade through Augusta’s streets must have been thoroughly covered by Maine’s news media, especially the Kennebec Journal, right? Sort of, but another report on the forest products industry captured the front page. 

Melanie Mohney, reference services, Maine State Library, refused to keep digging, even though she “checked both the Bangor Daily and the KJ for October 1984 (3rd Sunday – 30 October) and found nothing. If I think of another avenue, I will certainly pursue it.”

The next day, she had more information and a great find — a Forest Products Week photo that ran on the Local Page of the Kennebec Journal on Monday, Oct. 22, 1984.  It just happens to feature Jimmy Robbins (Jr.), age 11, standing beside a Robbins Lumber truck. Now he’s Jim A. Robbins, the current president of the Searsmont company, which was founded in 1881, and has been a long-time MFPC member.

Mohney also sent “a few more bits from the week of the 21st. They do not address the FPW specifically, but are industry related.”

Maine’s forest products industry did make the front page of the Kennebec Journal during Forest Products Week, on Friday, Oct. 26, 1984. The story was the first of a series on “the decline of Maine’s softwoods,” written by Bob Cummings, environmental writer for the Guy Gannett newspapers.

“Forest inventory paints a bleak picture,” the headline read, and the story focused on the state of Maine’s forests during “the worst budworm epidemic in modern times that has set the seeds of destruction for at least 5 million acres of the 7 million acre spruce and forest.”

Another lead came from Desiree Butterfield-Nagy, Special Collections Department at the University of Maine’s Fogler Library, and Betsy Paradis, local history and special collections librarian at the Bangor Public Library. They sent links to the 1984 BDN forest products section, which celebrated the industry, but also had a story about “Handling the spruce fir shortage in 20 years.” 

“There’s broad agreement today that spruce and fir of market age and maturity will be in short supply in 20 years,” author Jay Hutchins wrote.

The spruce budworm infestation began around 1970 and by 1975 not only Maine, but “the entire region from Ontario to Newfoundland was involved in the largest spruce budworm outbreak ever recorded,” according to The Spruce Budworm Outbreak in Maine in the 1970s. Maine poured countless hours and millions of dollars into efforts to combat it. (See Lessons Learned: Memories of the Maine budworm infestation, 1970s-1980s)

A simulation was conducted in 1983 by the Sewall Co., which estimated the harvest level then — approximately 2.9 million cords/year; about 6 million green tons — could not be sustained until

Forester Bill Brown of Seven Islands still vividly remembers watching the dying firs turning red and the World War II bombers spraying the forests in an effort to save them. He recalled the frantic struggle to build back-country roads so spruce and fir trees could be harvested before they died. He also described everyone’s amazement when spruce budworm abruptly disappeared in the mid-1980s.

“There was a spray program scheduled and all the entomologists and people from the spray program went out and they said, ‘Where did they all go?’” Brown said. “It was like the budworm had disappeared right off the face of the earth. The whole population just collapsed. Nobody had predicted that or expected that.”

Fortunately, the dire predictions about the future spruce-fir supply did not come true because two assumptions turned out to be wrong, says Ken Laustsen, former biometrician at the Maine Forest Service. 

  • Assumption #1 – The spruce budworm epidemic was going to continue to devastate northern Maine’s spruce-fir forests because the spray program was designed to only protect stands until they could be accessed and harvested. Then the epidemic crashed in 1985.
  • Assumption #2 – The harvest of spruce-fir was going to continue at levels seen from 1975 to the early 1980s. But all pulp/paper mills that could converted their raw material feedstock from spruce-fir to hardwood to the fullest extent possible, mainly because it was cheaper and quality paper could be made out of it. In 1992, the harvest of hardwood pulpwood exceeded spruce-fir pulpwood for the first time ever. (See chart and more detailed information.) 

So let’s get back to solving our mystery. Kristi Bryant, at the Portland Room, Portland Public Library, couldn’t find any 1960s references to Maine Forest Products Week, despite searching the library’s Maine News Index and looking through many indexed articles about forestry. But she did develop a theory about why Maine celebrated Forest Products Week in 1984 and 1985.

“It is my assumption that the event that you found in October of 1984 could have been the beginning of the event,” Bryant emailed. “One of the reasons I suggest that is I found a book . . . The Natural Resource Industries of Maine: An assessment and statistical portrait has a profile of the Forest Products Industry in Maine and it states that the industry was in a decline following the early 1980s due to a decline in housing starts and building. Perhaps Governor Brennan was trying to prop up the wood products employees and industries by declaring Maine Forest Products Week in October of 1984.”

Gov. Joseph Brennan. (See Maine An Encyclopedia)

The devastation caused by the spruce budworm infestation also might have figured into to Gov. Brennan’s thinking.

Sam Howes, who handles archival records at the Maine State Archives, couldn’t find a governor’s proclamation for 1984, but located one for 1985. Here are the reasons Gov. Brennan cited for proclaiming Maine Forest Products Week:

WHEREAS, the forest products industry continues to play a vital role in the economic life of Maine, the nation’s most heavily forested state, from the growing and harvesting of trees to the manufacture of wood and paper products; and

WHEREAS, the demand for wood products is projected to grow throughout this century and into the next; and

WHEREAS, the forest products industry will continue to employ numerous Maine residents in both forest and factory as they work to meet this growing demand; and

WHEREAS, wood is a renewable resource which will never be depleted so long as our foresters and natural resource professionals continue to find ways to effectively manage our forests,

“NOW, THEREFORE, I, JOSEPH E. BRENNAN, Governor of the State of Maine, do hereby proclaim the week of October 20th through October 26th, 1985 as FOREST PRODUCTS WEEK throughout the State of Maine, and I urge all citizens to observe the important role that forest products play in our daily lives and in Maine’s economic life as well.”

When contacted, three former commissioners of what was then called the Department of Conservation, Richard Barringer, Ed Meadows and Richard Anderson, as well as Marshall Wiebe, the department’s long-time communication spokesman, said they had no memory of Forest Products Week. But Anderson, who served 1981-86, emailed, “I think it is a great idea and am sure that I convinced Governor Brennan that it was a good thing to do.”

The Irving Forest Products Sawmill in Dixfield

Everything Gov. Brennan proclaimed has, in fact, happened. Despite five mill closures from 2014 to 2016, a new, stronger forest economy is emerging in Maine. Just a back-of-the-envelope tally of investments announced, in progress or completed shows nearly a billion dollars is revitalizing the state’s forest economy.

Maine has something the world still wants and needs – enormous wood resources and well-trained, hard-working people who produce sustainable, renewable wood for an ever-growing global population. Studies show that as population increases, wood consumption also increases. By 2025, there will be an estimated eight billion people on earth and they will need more wood products, from lumber, to tissue paper, to biobased plastics. One of the facts Brennan noted — that wood is a renewable resource — is even more important today than it was then. Scientific advances also are using wood to make many new products, from cross laminated timber to cellulose based plastics to biofuels.

So the Council believes there is plenty to celebrate in this Maine’s New Forest Economy. We hope forest products businesses across Maine will plan events, tours and other activities – MFPC will be happy to assist — to help our neighbors throughout the state understand the history of this industry and its importance to communities across the state today.

So let’s celebrate National Forest Products Week this year the Maine way. We have a great story to tell about our legendary industry, which is now reinventing itself. 

Contact Roberta Scruggs at 207-622-9288 or rscruggs@maineforest.org.

For more ideas and tools about how to celebrate, read Sarah Medina’s column. Here are some reports that might be helpful:

Maine’s Forest Economy 2016

Secondary Wood Manufacturing in Maine 2017

Understanding public access to private working forests in Maine 2018

Maine Forest Gamechangers

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