On Nov. 17, the Maine Forest Products Council published an OpEd in the Bangor Daily News, coinciding with the “Transforming Maine’s Pulp and Paper Industry for the Future” conference held in Bangor the same day.
Maine has been producing paper for nearly three centuries, but the industry is facing unprecedented, if predictable, challenges. It is not going to vanish. However, neither is it adequately adapting, as the OpEd suggested.
In 1906, there were 100-plus pulp and paper mills, but by the late 20th century, the industry was undergoing massive shifts. Since 1980, over half of Maine’s remaining 25 paper mills have closed, most others are struggling, thousands of mill and woods workers have lost their jobs and mill towns have been economically devastated.
Now, big changes in Maine’s pulp and paper industry are accelerating. At this moment:
— Verso’s Bucksport mill is being scrapped.
— The bankrupt Lincoln mill is being bought by liquidators.
— The Expera mill in Old Town is closing in December.
— Verso says its mill in Jay may be dumped or sold.
— Catalyst is laying off more workers from its Rumford mill.
— Half a dozen of the remaining paper mills are seeking tax breaks.
— The looters of the defunct Great Northern mills are poised to get millions more dollars from their New Markets tax scam.
— Maine taxpayers are on the hook for perpetual maintenance of two massive former paper company landfills.
— Pulp and paper employment in Maine has plummeted 70 percent from its peak and more cuts are projected.
— Some 1,200 jobs at Irving and Catalyst mills in Maine are jeopardized by tariffs being slapped on Canadian paper imports.
— The sale of Plum Creek to Weyerhaeuser could result in the loss of public access to more lands.
— Gov. Paul LePage has essentially shut down Maine’s working forest conservation programs.
These tectonic shifts underscore the urgency of reducing over-reliance on papermaking. As the industry continues to shrink in Maine, it is understandable that people would look back and try to regain the good old days. However, as painful as it is, we have to acknowledge that economies frequently change. The whale oil industry evaporated when petroleum wells were drilled. The U.S. auto industry hit a massive speed bump when, unlike Asian carmakers, it did not offer more efficient vehicles. Maine is dotted with empty chicken barns, derelict sardine factories, repurposed shoe plants and crumbling hardwood sawmills because those industries became uncompetitive.
How much can Maine afford to spend propping up pulp and paper? In recent years, the state has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in failed attempts to resuscitate failing mills.
We need a realistic assessment of where public funds can best be invested to build our future economy. This should include innovative and value-added niche wood and paper products with a real chance of success in the global marketplace. If a corporation says it needs a disproportionate amount of public money invested, as we have seen in a number of unsuccessful attempts at saving mills, the chances are it will not succeed.
Meanwhile, industry advocates should stop blocking efforts to create a national park or any other viable conservation proposal that can help diversify Maine’s economy. They should stop using unreliable multipliers to inflate the industry’s impact in the hope of persuading policymakers to provide even more subsidies. They should stop pretending that the glory days of yesteryear’s economy are magically coming back. And they should stop blaming those who are working to create Maine’s next economy.
A revamped forest industry in Maine can survive. But to thrive it needs to focus on what it can do to produce a competitive product, cultivate a highly productive workforce, pay a living wage, restore an optimistic attitude and encourage an entrepreneurial approach while earning a fair return on investment.
One easy step to demonstrate enlightened cooperation is to say, “Yes, please,” to conservation advocates who are offering to invest $100 million to turn a modest-sized parcel of Maine woodlands into a job-creating national park and recreation area that requires no Maine tax money, just a thumbs up. This will have an insignificant impact on the timber base, but it can provide substantial economic benefits to the region.
In today’s new normal, the forest products industry is just one of many important sectors of Maine’s economy. The sooner the industry recognizes this, the sooner we can all move on to a positive future.
Jym St. Pierre holds a master’s degree in resource economics from the University of Maine. He has been Maine director of RESTORE: The North Woods since 1995.