I recently read Charles Hastings’ June 10 OpEd on wood pellets and Maine’s forest industry, but he should realize this issue is not as simple as he says, nor are the people in Maine’s forest industry so naive.
Maine is, in fact, in an ideal location for exporting wood fiber to European markets, but the demand for pulpwood — the same wood used in pellets overseas — exceeds the supply of wood Maine can sustainably manage. As a result, Maine is a net importer of pulpwood — 1.7 million green tons in 2012, according to the Maine Forest Service — so the opportunity to export millions of tons of wood is unrealistic and needs to be carefully analyzed.
In other parts of North America, the markets for the wood fiber part of the tree, as compared with the saw log trunks and biomass tops of trees, are not as robust as they are in Maine.
In Maine, we have a market for every part of the tree, and while domestic heating pellets are gaining in Maine production — 365,387 green tons of firewood and pellets out of a total 2012 harvest of 14.6 million green tons — a major shift of fiber out of Maine’s active markets would have repercussions for state mills and communities, including significant potential for rural job losses.
Maine and Europe have a well-established hierarchy for the value of wood harvested: saw logs, pulp and paper, biomass and pellets. There are a number of ways to measure this value, and they all yield the same results.
A 2010 European study by the European Panel Federation examined the monetary value and associated employment of woods-related sectors. The wood products industry and the pulp and paper industry are both almost nine times more valuable than the biomass and pellets energy sector. They both provide far more jobs.
According to the Maine Economic Growth Council’s Measure of Growth Report, over the past few years, one of the best environmental measures has been the stewardship of our sustainable forest lands. Through planting and natural regeneration of Maine’s forests, we continue to grow slightly more than we harvest. But that slight growth is not enough to sustain a vastly increased export market.
With our last encounter of the spruce budworm, trees that were infected were harvested ahead of schedule in order to get the maximum value before the trees became worthless. As we are potentially on the verge of another outbreak, the state forest industry is keeping an eye toward the European energy markets in case we find ourselves having to do another accelerated harvest and by chance Maine softwood fiber exceeds our demand. In that case, a viable new market might be the European energy market.
Maine has been a pioneer in the wood energy business, as Hastings noted, and it’s this pioneer wisdom that will guide us in maintaining a sustainable forest economy.
Bill Cohen is manager of mill communications and regional government affairs for Verso Paper.