The future of Maine’s North Woods should not include a federal park or, for that matter, a national forest. We should not be so quick to write off Maine’s forest economy and tradition of public access in pursuit of other values. While some Maine residents may respond favorably to the idea of a national park, there is declining support once people learn of the negative consequences that federal lands have on taxes, employment and traditional uses people now enjoy.
That is why Maine’s 125th Legislature wisely voted to reject the idea of a national park. “Holding our fire” on a North Woods park, as the BDN suggested in a June 26 editorial, threatens investments in Maine’s forest economy and our model of a working forest that is compatible with nature-based tourism and Maine’s wildlife species.
The Maine Forest Products Council is a trade association that represents a broad spectrum of companies involved in the forest industry, and this industry is an important part of Maine’s economic survival. Maine’s working forests produce between 6 million and 7 million cords of wood annually that fuel an economic contribution to Maine of $4.3 billion per year.
The creation of a federal park, where sustainable timber harvesting is not allowed, will severely reduce long-term wood supply. Even national forests, where harvesting is allowed, do not generate comparable amounts of the fiber that fuels more than 30 percent of Maine’s manufacturing output, employing more than 18,000 people and indirectly supporting 55,000 jobs.
The truth is that the Maine woods are a successful and unique model of productive, working forestlands that provide nearly unlimited recreation opportunities. They are sustainably managed and support a globally competitive forest products industry.
One must balance the loss of some mills and the precarious state of the Millinocket area mills against recent significant investments in equipment in the Verso and Sappi pulp and paper mills, J.M. Huber’s oriented strand board mill, Louisiana-Pacific’s oriented strand lumber mill and several sawmills. The growth in biomass energy, wood pellets, biofuels and composite construction materials combined with emerging technologies in harvesting and manufacturing continue to keep Maine competitive in the global market.
Indeed, the forest products industry remains Maine’s largest manufacturing industry and it provides a huge contribution to Maine’s gross domestic product and tax base. We should note that in a housing recession that has idled nearly 50 percent of North America’s lumber production, all of Maine’s state-of-the art lumber mills remain in business, buying wood and selling product.
In addition, Maine’s North Woods offer public access, either for free or for a nominal fee. The public can access the woods by vehicle and snowmobile to pursue recreational opportunities including hiking, camping, canoeing, hunting and fishing.
This system of working forests with public access is unique in the U.S. and the world, and would be instantly threatened with extinction should a North Woods National Park find foothold. Maine people would gain little except a logo and park rangers, encounter access restrictions and pay higher fees while losing tax base and productive working forestland.
The idea has been raised that Millinocket could be the “gateway” to the national park and new jobs would be created to offset those lost because of the mills closing. It is important to note that jobs in hospitality and recreation sectors earn less than half the statewide average wage, while the average paper manufacturing wage is nearly twice the state average. Millinocket remains one of the most strategic locations in Maine for a successful wood manufacturing facility.
A feasibility study for a park will send a strong signal to mill owners to invest elsewhere. Forest products companies already are worried about wood supply in Maine and any effort that removes timberland from production is an item of great concern for our mills.
A feasibility study sets the stage for years of uncertainty and divisive debate that will hurt our industry. In addition, the presence of a national park justifiably will cause landowners to reconsider the cost of providing access on private roads and lands that are crossed to access a park. Even a small national park will be a constant threat because of expansion from eminent domain powers.
The strong movement in Maine to establish conservation easements that extend to nearly 3 million acres to date would be curtailed. In short, a national park will severely threaten the unique system that has served Maine well for hundreds of years.
Patrick Strauch is executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council.