Help solve the mystery of Maine Forest Products Week
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?
With the help of librarians across the state, we have gathered some interesting facts and one theory, but perhaps there’s more to discover. For example, does anybody remember a parade through the main streets of Augusta in 1984 to celebrate forest products?
On September 13, 1960, Congress passed a joint resolution and President Dwight Eisenhower signed a proclamation two days later, 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.”
Since then most states with a forest products industry have done just what every president from Eisenhower to Donald Trump has urged. From Wisconsin to Florida to Oregon, there are festivities during the third week of October to highlight forest people, products and, of course, the economic impact of the industry.
Just not 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 celebration of Maine’s forests and forest products during the third week of October appears to be in the Bangor Daily News, which for decades has published a special forest products section.
Even Maine Forest Products Council members with long, extensive knowledge of the state’s forest products industry had no idea why this national event has not 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 reference librarians, however, are incredibly dogged. 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.”
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.
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 the year 2020. Of course, no one knew then that the budworm infestation would soon be over.
In 2012, Forester Bill Brown of Seven Islands still vividly remembered 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.”
The devastation caused by the spruce budworm infestation also probably 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.”
Everything Gov. Brennan proclaimed has, in fact, happened. Despite five mill closures from 2014 to 2015, forest products has an $8 billion impact on Maine’s economy, including about 33,000 direct and indirect jobs.
More importantly, a new, stronger forest economy is emerging in Maine. Just a back-of-the-envelope tally of investments announced, in progress or completed shows more than a half billion dollars in investments is revitalizing Maine’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.
The Council believes there is plenty to celebrate in this New Forest Economy, so MFPC has asked Gov. Mills to proclaim Maine Forest Products week, Oct. 20-26, 2019, in conjunction with National Forest Products Week.
Once we hear back about the proclamation, we hope forest products businesses across Maine will plan events, tours and other activities – and 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 Maine Forest Products Week this year the Maine way. We have a great story to tell about our legendary industry.
Contact Roberta Scruggs at 207-622-9288 or firstname.lastname@example.org.