MFPC certainly achieved its goal of helping legislative leaders better understand the Maine’s forest products industry, but also gained an unexpected bonus. During the panel discussion at the Jan. 26th board meeting, a strategy started to emerge, along with a sense of purpose and list of short- and long-term actions that could strengthen Maine’s forest economy.
The conference room was crowded with more than 40 members and four legislative leaders — Senate President Mike Thibodeau, House Speaker Mark Eves, House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe and House Assistant Minority Leader Ellie Espling. House Minority Leader Ken Fredette, an attorney, sent his regrets because he had to be court.
“I thought it was great that the leadership was here to listen to us and spend as much time as they did right in the middle of the session,” said Gordon Gamble of Wagner Forest Management. “The panel was very diverse and brought out all aspects of the industry. I thought it was great.”
The panelists were MFPC board members representing five forest products sectors (see box at left). Each was asked to outline the challenges and opportunities in their sector.
Dr. Robert Wagner of the University of Maine got the discussion off to a rousing start with his presentation, “Maine is a Great Place for a Forest-Based Economy,” which highlighted Maine’s assets and outlined the opportunities emerging in forest products, from new technology to new markets. (Watch below)
“Everybody from the industry’s perspective did a great job with their messages, but I have to say that Bob Wagner and his message was phenomenal,” said Michele MacLean, MFPC lobbyist. “He nailed this need for a vision and brought in every component, every sector of the industry, and the fact that we need to have a common vision and interests, and that we’re not that far apart. I just saw legislative leaders sitting there wide-eyed and kind of hopeful.”
Wagner and MFPC Executive Director Patrick Strauch had been talking for some time about how to help the industry do more than simply face the challenges it presents. They also want to develop a statewide, industrywide strategy to grasp the opportunities it offers.
Near the end of Wagner’s presentation he challenged legislative leaders and MFPC members to create a “roadmap” to guide Maine into the new frontiers of the global forest economy.
“There are lots of exciting things going on with wood fiber products and the demand is increasing. Is Maine going to be part of that or not?” Wagner asked. “What can Maine do to help capture some of these new opportunities?”
He pointed out that the European Union, Sweden and Finland, as well as the State of Minnesota have developed strategic plans for their forest industries. These plans include a comprehensive analysis of the forest products sector, the current and potential markets, and what must be done to capture these markets.
Maine could do the same, Wagner said, but even though the sectors of the industry share many of the same challenges, they haven’t cooperated on solutions, strategies or even coordinated a message to legislators.
“There’s a need to facilitate the aspirations, opportunities, challenges and obstacles that each of those sectors have,” Wagner said, “and the common threads are the things that need to be addressed if the sector is going to move forward.”
“Then ultimately these three things need to be integrated together – understand the markets, understand the available resource, and what the leading challenges are to produce a forest sector vision and roadmap,” Wagner said. “This is possible. It’s something we can do, but I’m not aware of us ever – as a state – looking at this sector and identifying a vision and coordinating what needs to happen as a road map.”
“Maine’s forestland remains one of our greatest natural resources that will continue to fuel a multi-billion dollar economy in Maine,” Strauch said. “Dr. Wagner reminded us all of the opportunities this forest holds for rural Maine.
One of the biggest cross-cutting themes was the reduction of markets for low grade wood, (i.e. pulp wood and biomass.) The loss of 2 million tons of pulpwood capacity (mostly softwood) will be a challenge for the industry, Strauch said. Large and small landowners will have trouble marketing hemlock, and pine and we’re especially concerned about spruce and fir markets as the Spruce Budworm approaches.
“We need to encourage the development of new markets for these products,” he said.
Strauch’s additional points:
- Biomass energy markets are also important representing 20 percent of the harvest tonnage in Maine. Speakers talked about the need to protect this market to maintain forest management options, provide outlets for mill wastes, and to keep the logging workforce and associated businesses alive. Maine needs a more sophisticated energy policy in that recognizes the opportunities for the forest industry through the new commodity of biomass electrons.
- Build a vision for the forest products sector that acts as a blueprint for action. Bob Wagner’s presentation was well received and could channel the industry, policy makers and government agencies toward a common goal of strengthening Maine’s forest products sector. Building on the strength of the University of Maine research into the future forest products is imperative.
- Attract and support capital investments into Maine’s forest sector. The businesses that will survive these economically challenging times are the ones who have made investments in their businesses that make them more competitive. It’s not about racing to find replacements for our closed mills, but strengthening the mills that we have, and encouraging them to adapt and prosper. It’s the basic work we have been doing like creating an environment of tax stability and lower energy costs, all the block and tackle work that shows mill owners we want them to stay.
“We know as a Council we have an obligation to provide a path forward based on the issues expressed by our membership to legislative leaders,” Strauch said, “and we intend to articulate this plan in the coming weeks.