Legislators hear about ‘big upturn’ in forest products

Senate President Troy Jackson, House Republican leader Kathleen Dillingham, assistant Senate Republican leader Jeffrey Timberlake and about 40 other legislators attended the MFPC breakfast, which also drew more than 50 members to Augusta.

Any legislator whose picture of Maine’s forest products hadn’t been updated since the Madison mill closed in May 2016 got a pleasant surprise at the Council’s Legislative Breakfast Jan. 29. In the past few years, Executive Director Patrick Strauch told them, roughly $600 million in capital investments have been made or announced in Maine’s forest products industry.

It was a full house as members and legislators mingled.

“We really feel like we’re at the beginning of a big upturn in the opportunities for the industry,” Strauch said. “We need to make sure we’ve got good, trained workers, but it’s an exciting time and we’re part of the new, green forest economy. Legislators are going to be important in helping us as we put together the strategy in the FOR/Maine master plan.”

The breakfast, held at the Senator Inn in Augusta, attracted about 55 members and more than 40 legislators, including Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Aroostook, House Republican leader Kathleen Dillingham, R-Oxford, and Jeffrey L. Timberlake (R-Androscoggin), assistant Senate Republican leader. Also attending were Sen. Russell Black, Rep. MaryAnne Kinney, D-Knox; Rep. Randy Hall, R-Wilton; Rep. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, and Rep. Bill Pluecker, I-Knox, of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee; Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, co-chair of Appropriations, and many other members of key committees for the industry.

Legislators heard reports from MFPC members on key sectors of the industry, starting with the Council’s president, Gordon Gamble of Wagner Forest Management, who unveiled our new special report entitled, Understanding public access to working forests.

“I think we can all agree that the privilege that we all enjoy with access to private land is pretty special and unique in the U.S.,” Gamble said. “However, we’ve realized there are a lot of misconceptions about this, which you see in letters to the editor or perhaps in public testimony. So we felt it was in our best interest to produce this report and give sort of the rest of the story on Maine’s great tradition.”

The update on Maine’s pulp and paper sector was delivered by Scott Beal of Woodland Pulp/St. Croix paper, and Jim Contino of Verso.

 “We have been through a tough period and now, instead of looking over our shoulders in doubt, we’re excited to look ahead to the future,” Beal said, listing Woodland’s investments in Baileyville; ND Papers investments in the Rumford and Old Town, and SAPPI’s “investments from the front end of the mill – the wood-handling system – all the way to conversion of a machine from coated paper to making packaging. “

“The breakfast was good and the information you folks put together was real helpful,” Rep. Frances Head, R-Bethel, emailed MFPC. “The private land booklet was especially helpful to several constituents that I spoke with yesterday.”

“What we need from the Legislature is not a relationship, but a partnership,” Beal said. “If we’re going to keep going, we’ve got to do this together. We need your help to keep providing opportunities for meaningful employment.”

Contino continued that positive theme, saying that “Verso has seven mills and the very best of them is right up the river in Jay, Maine.”

The Jay mill, which once focused on catalogue and magazine paper, has repositioned itself to specialty niches with “a lot better margins,” such as the liner of “the boxes that come on Amazon trucks,” and the paper used in food packaging and labels.

“It could be microwave popcorn bags, dogfood bags or wrappers that you get at McDonalds,” Contino said. “You see our labels when you go to grocery stores – they might be on Heinz ketchup or Campbell soup or anything that’s got color printing on it.”

Jason Brochu of Pleasant River Lumber delivered the update on spruce-fir lumber mills, and Jim Robbins Sr. of Robbins Lumber spoke about pine mills.

“In a little less than the last decade, we’ve seen the competitive climate for our mills improve,” Brochu said. “When the industry started to go down, we were forced as an industry to rely more on exported logs. Now we’re seeing the opposite happen. Our production has gained dramatically and we’re investing heavily in our mills — over $100 million in the last five or six years. So we’ve got a highly competitive spruce-fir sawmill industry in Maine right now and it’s growing rapidly.”

Robbins picked up that theme, saying, “Mills survive by modernizing and that’s true with any mill, whether paper mills or sawmills. If you don’t keep modernizing your mill, you aren’t going to be in business.”

“There are lots of new markets and uses for the sustainably grown, managed, delivered forest resources that we have in Maine,” said Steve Shaler, director of UMaine’s School of Forest Resources.

In 2006 nationwide, 2.4 million houses were built in the U.S., but 400,000 in 2008. Sawmills across North America went out of business, Robbins said, but now housing has rebounded to 1.25 million.

“Our state is doing a great job managing our forests,” Robbins said. “So if you’re going to build anything, you want to build it out of wood, because it’s the most efficient, greenest material that we can build with. So please support community-based power projects and I also want to put in a word for FOR/Maine, which is going to help put our forest industry back on the map and make us greater than ever.”

Richard Wing of Wing and Son Logging in Standish and Ken Lamond of Family Forestry in Brewer provided the logging update. They agreed one serious problem facing the industry is a need for trained workers.

“It’s hard to find help and to keep good help,” Wing said. “We pay well and have health insurance and all that, but it’s hard to find young people who want to work in the woods.”

Another problem in southern Maine is increasing property taxes and real estate prices, he said, adding, “We’ve got to find some ways to help landowners with property taxes. They can’t grow wood fast enough to pay their taxes.”

Wing also wants to see the state’s district foresters focus more on outreach “because we’ve got a lot of people moving in to the state who have never seen a logging operation.”

“We have to educate people when they come by our jobs and say, ‘What are you doing? You’re cutting all the trees down!’ We’re not cutting all the trees down,” Wing said. “We’re selectively cutting. So we hope the state foresters educate people so they know that what we’re doing is the right way.”

“I thought today’s breakfast meeting went very well,” said Greg Foster, an MFPC Board member.” I believe every speaker delivered a concise well thought out message that ultimately covered all major components of Maine’s forest community. These messages were clear and very understandable. To me there was a common theme, that Maine’s forest industry is doing much better than several years ago, do not mess it up!”

Lamond concentrated on the need to improve Maine’s business environment, saying that’s important to the entire industry.

“We’ve been through ups and downs and recently we’ve seen real positive signs in investment and opportunity,” Lamond said. “In the Legislature, you’ll see proposals coming your way, rules and laws and all that. I would ask that you measure them by whether it’s good for business or not. That’s really the bottom line for us. We need a strong, positive business environment to survive and thrive.”

As the breakfast ended, Strauch thanked legislators for coming and urged them to contact the Council or its members to learn more about the forest products industry.

“I think what we wanted to demonstrate is our industry is really part of all the communities of Maine,” Strauch said. “No matter where you are there’s a logger or a manufacturer. We’re very interested in connecting with you and helping you see our industry and our people at work. We’re all trying to help make rural Maine a stronger place and help its residents. It’s not about the trees – we’ve got plenty of trees — it’s really about the people.”