June 19, 2018
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Katahdin Region’s Uncertain Future

The Dolby landfill along the banks of Dolby Pond near GNP's former East Millinocket facility.

For lawmakers considering a state purchase of a landfill in hopes of spurring the purchase of paper mills in the Katahdin region, there are no easy answers. Will a state takeover of the landfill ensure the mills are purchased? No one knows for sure. If the mills are sold, will they continue to employ at least 450 people? This is far from certain.

What is certain is that if the state doesn’t make a deal to buy the mills more appealing, they will remain closed and hundreds of jobs will be lost.

The state has been in this situation before. To facilitate the sale of the Georgia-Pacific mill in Old Town, the Baldacci administration agreed to take over the company’s landfill. The Juniper Ridge deal remains controversial to this day.

However, the mill is now operational producing pulp and biofuel. It employs 190 people, fewer than G-P did, but the jobs are essential to those who have them and a benefit to the community. In addition, the region now has a place for its garbage as the landfill in Hampden was nearing capacity when the Juniper Ridge deal was negotiated. The landfill also produces methane gas which, under a recent agreement, it will sell to the University of Maine as an alternative to imported fossil fuels.

Should the state go down this road again? Gov. Paul LePage and lawmakers are right to strongly consider doing so.

Selling the mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket will not be easy. The Millinocket facility, which relied on oil for power, was closed in 2008 because of the high fuel costs. The East Millinocket mill was closed in April when a potential deal fell through. That mill employed 450 people. Another 250 worked at the Millinocket facility.

Because they are closed, neither mill has a customer base. The East Millinocket facility made directory paper, which could be made into newsprint. The Bangor Daily News was a major customer. These types of paper have seen a drop in demand.

Perhaps the mills could carve out a niche, as others in the state have. The Millinocket mill proposed pulp, which is now in high demand and presumably could be sold to mills in the region more economically than pulp that must be transported into the state. This work, however, requires fewer employees than does making paper. The large spaces could also be an ideal place to build modular houses or wind turbines. Ingenuity and flexibility must be central to discussion of the mills’ future.

While efforts to save the mills continue, area residents and businesses need to be realistic about the region’s future. Many have resisted embracing tourism as a key component of the local economy, although the area is the gateway to Baxter State Park, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and the North Maine Woods.

Businesses that cater to tourists pursuing outdoor recreation have quietly sprouted up and are growing. Yet, efforts by Roxanne Quimby, whose landownership in the region is growing, to preserve land for non-motorized use — and her ultimate goal, a national park — remain highly controversial.

There is room in the region for both mills and tourism, but if the former goes away — now or sometime in the future — building up tourism as a ready backup is logical.

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