Poll shows Mainers know importance of forest economy

Those of us inside Maine’s forest products industry know there are many positive events occurring, but we also have wondered how the closure of five pulp or paper mills from 2014 to 2016 has affected public perception.

So in the spring of 2018, we added a question to the Critical Insights on Maine survey, a comprehensive, statewide public opinion survey of registered voters, which has been documenting the attitudes, perceptions, and preferences of Maine’s residents for more than 20 years. In April 2018, a representative sample of 619 respondents across the state were surveyed online or by phone, with a margin of sampling error of +/- 3.9 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level.

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MFPC’s question was worded exactly the same as a question University of Maine researchers asked in surveys of both statewide residents and mill town residents in 2009 for the Maine Forest and Forest Products Survey. “On a scale from 1 to 7, how important to Maine’s economy is the state’s forest products industry? (1 not at all important to 7 very important).” 

In the Critical Insights poll, we were happy to see that 44 percent of residents statewide said the forest products industry is very important to the state’s economy, compared to 41.7 percent in 2009. A solid majority of 64 percent chose the top two categories (6 and 7), down from 74 percent in 2009, but still excellent.

“Wow, awesome results!! 64 percent had the highest two importance rankings!” Dr. Mindy Crandall, UMaine assistant professor of Forest Landscape Management & Economics, said in an email. 

“Maine’s forests cover 89 percent  of the state’s land area, with 93 percent of this acreage actively managed by private landowners and much of that accessible to the public. Sustainable forestry supports Maine’s economy, identity, and quality of life. Forests provide habitat for wildlife, offer a wide variety of recreational opportunities, help protect our air and water quality, and supply raw materials used to create products ranging from newspaper to alternative fuels.” Measures of Growth Report 2017 

However, UMaine colleague, Dr. Jessica Leahy, one of the authors of the 2009 study, expressed concern about the decline in the top two categories from 74 percent in 2009, to 64 percent in 2018. 

“You’re holding steady with public perception among those who say ‘very important,’ but it’s the folks in the middle who are shifting their perceptions,” Leahy emailed. “That said, these are still strong numbers, more than half of Mainers see the industry as very important to the state. However, it still seems more should be done to let people know just how important forest products are, and that the reports of the forest products industry’s death is greatly exaggerated.”

Here are some reasons why the assessment of the majority of Mainers is justified: 

  • On May 17, the Finance Authority of Maine approved 90 percent loan insurance on a loan totaling $944,000 by TD Bank to Maibec USA LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Groupe Maibec Inc., a family-owned Canadian company headquartered in Quebec, Canada. The loan will be used to purchase a feed conveyor deck and de-barker machine to bring operational efficiencies to Maibec USA’s mill operations in Masardis, helping retain 145 Maine jobs. Read more.
  • Pleasant River Lumber was awarded a $4.2 million grant in April from the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) that will be used toward a $12 million expansion at Pleasant River Lumber’s mill on the Milo Road and a larger $20 million initiative between the Dover-Foxcroft location and the company’s Moose River Mill in Jackman.  Pleasant River will need an additional 300,000 tons of spruce/fir to operate the line, which will help with the loss of softwood markets because of pulp mill closures. Read more.
  • In February, two companies, Smartlam and LignaCLT Maine, announced they would open cross-laminated timber mills in Maine. MTI awarded a $3 million to Montana-based SmarlLam to support its plans to build a $23.5 million cross-laminated timber manufacturing plant in Maine. Smartlam said it will announce the site chosen for its plan in the next few weeks. LignaCLT  plans to build a 300,000-square-foot manufacturing plant on 35 acres of the 1,400-acre site now owned by Our Katahdin LLC. Read more.
  • Verso Corp., which received a $4 million MTI grant, is restarting its No. 3 machine in Jay, bringing back 120 jobs and re-establishing about 1 million tons of softwood consumption (pine, hemlock and some spruce/fir). The mill is phasing out of all printing paper production and moving toward labeling and packaging lines. The total capital cost of the project is estimated at about $17 million. Verso’s recent stock performance and capital investment announcements are very encouraging. Read more. 
  • Robbins Lumber in Searsmont is building a $36 million, 8.5 megawatt biomass plant, with capacity to sell about 7.5 megawatts to Central Maine Power. Read more.
  • SAPPI has invested $185 million in its Skowhegan mill to upgrade to its packaging paper line and wood room. Read more.
  • Catalyst is investing $56 million to convert to tissue manufacturing at its Rumford mill. Read more.
  • Woodland has invested $150 million to make tissue at its Baileyville mill. Read more.

Just the investments mentioned above add up to about a half billion dollars. 

Mehdi Tajvidi

Maine also is fortunate that the University of Maine has world class research and development programs for wood products.  One of the most recent announcements, for example, was that Mehdi Tajvidi, an assistant professor of renewable nanomaterials at the University of Maine, has been awarded $250,000 to develop next-generation floor and wall products that utilize cellulose nanofibrils, the microscopic natural structural building units of wood that are biodegradable. Read more.

These are just some of the positive/additive events that have occurred in Maine. Overall, wood consumption is increasing and capital investments are occurring among the surviving mills.  I’m also talking with many people about perspective projects in Maine. Both new entrepreneurs and existing Maine businesses are considering investments here. 

I’ve often said this is not your grandfather’s forest product industry, but it may be your granddaughter’s forest products industry. As we adjust to meet challenges and explore opportunities, it’s good to know the majority of Mainers understand how important our $8.5 billion industry is to Maine’s economy.