Long-range planning in a real-time forest economy

Yellow Light Breen, co-chair of the Maine Development Foundation; Peter Triandafillou of Huber Resources and Patrick Strauch of MFPC watch as federal and state officials announce $1 million in federal grants to help build a roadmap for our forest economy Jan. 18 press at AFM’s wood yard in Passadumkeag. (Photo courtesy of Digital Spirit Media.)

We all know that necessity is the mother of invention, which is why the Council teamed up with the University of Maine to build a roadmap for our industry, an effort endorsed by the 127th Legislature last spring in a resolution.

January has been a month of announcements centered on efforts of many Maine companies and organizations to build this roadmap for Maine, so it’s a good time to let you know the progress of our efforts.

Maine’s woods cover a vast region and there is always some variability in operating conditions, but in general we’ve had snowfall over land that was not completely frozen so harvesting operations are not ideal and require greater efforts to freeze down woods roads and harvesting trails. 

The result is that mill wood inventories are decreasing and there is a slight increase in market demand. This ebb and flow is part of the market dynamics in our industry that is influenced by global markets and natural resource dynamics. We’re no different from our fellow fisherman and farmers, it’s just that our crop rotations are closer to 70 years than the 5 to 7 years for a lobster to grow to the legal harvest size.

As an industry we’re fortunate that we have spent a significant amount of time in the last 20 years talking about the sustainability of our resource and we’re seeing the farming an fisheries managers adapting our certification principles into their own disciplines. However, we have not spent as much time discussing the sustainability of our wood manufacturing, and we’ve been caught off guard with a loss of markets due to mill closures. Signs of this market shift were apparent, but the global dynamics of low energy prices, China’s economic crisis and the resultant strength of the U.S. dollar put many of our at-risk businesses over the edge.

Earlier this month the Forest Economy Initiative Group released the priorities we’ve identified to strengthen Maine’s forest economy, including conducting a global market assessment to assess future demand for Maine wood products, analyzing our statewide wood supply with an eye to new markets, and determining where infrastructure improvements are necessary to increase profitability for the forest products value chain. 

The consortium we’ve been talking about in past newsletters includes MFPC, UMO, the Maine Development Foundation, SWOAM, Professional Loggers Contractors of Maine (PLC), BioBased Maine, and the former Maine Pulp & Paper Association. It’s an important collection of industry and community interests.

This report was never designed to be a silver bullet,” said Peter Triandafillou of Huber Resources, “but this initiative allows us to start connecting key resources.”

On January 18, the Economic Development Assessment Team (EDAT) came to Maine to release its report, which reinforces the priority issues identified by our Maine process and to add a $1 million in funding for the UMO/Industry roadmap project. This award makes it possible to assemble our Forest Implementation Team (FIT) to work with the university and carry out our work plan. Watch press conference.

In February, we will be going in front of the Maine Technology Institute to seek the required matching money. The Roadmap Project will have both short-term and long-term deliverables, but it is not the only effort to strengthen our forest economy.

This Shelby Cobra was 3D printed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

I speak from experience when I say there are numerous entrepreneurial activities occurring on a daily basis. Many companies are “kicking the tires” of Maine’s assets, including companies considering expansions, building material manufacturers seeking East Coast locations, and a global push towards the third industrial revolution that includes a wood biobased economy with modern manufacturing technology.

A great example is the agreement signed Friday between UMO and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to explore the opportunities for 3D printing using wood cellulose. There also are discussions about building a wood nanocellulose refinery in Maine. 

The Roadmap Project is designed to assist all of these individual efforts by raising the collective tide of opportunity by:

  • Determining the types of businesses we should be encouraging based on a global assessment of our niche in the world;
  • Benchmarking ourselves in all forest sectors against our competing forest product regions, and,
  • Inventorying tree species growth rates and location to prospective manufacturing opportunities to enable long-range investment.

If we do this right, we will assemble the best information from experts and leaders in our field, uncover some of the deeper root causes of the current situation, and find ways to encourage more capital investments in our state. We also hope to enhance communications and sharing of ideas among business and community leaders, policy makers and conservationists. If we reach these goals, the Roadmap Project will be part of an important and lasting initiative for Maine’s forest economy.