In a recent Bangor Daily News column, Steven Biel and Lance Dutson dub Hillary Clinton’s statement about putting coal miners out of work as “a dumb thing to say,” or a “gaffe.” Apparently presidential candidates are required to shy away from the truth.
Coal may be the perishing enterprise in states such as West Virginia and Kentucky, but Maine has its own declining industry. The raft of paper mill closures we have seen in the past few years are the latest signs of a long-suffering wood products industry in Maine.
When I began my career as a forest biologist and wood scientist at the University of Maine more than 35 years ago, Maine still had a healthy diversified wood products industry, and this was reflected in a robust enrollment of students in our forestry and wood products programs. As the years passed, subtle changes occurred, but at a pace akin to climate change, and we pretended not to notice.
Some of the early casualties were in quintessential Maine products such as toothpicks, tongue depressors, clothes pins and dowels. I remember working with one of our clothespin manufacturers who faced imports of clothespins from China. I analyzed the woods used in the imported clothespins and was surprised at the large number of different Southeast Asian wood species — sometimes a different wood on each arm of a spring clothespin.
That these woods might stain damp clothes, while our white birch clothespins wouldn’t, didn’t seem to matter. They were cheaper.
White pine, our state tree, was once an important Maine export product. Leon Williams Lumber, just east of Bangor, was a major white pine lumber producer, and a well-respected community leader. The highway that passes by this now closed and deserted mill bears his name. Moosehead Furniture, a respected name in hard maple furniture, faced with overseas competition, closed its Monson manufacturing facility in 2010.
As job opportunities for our students at the university declined, enrollments declined, and finally we terminated the wood science program.
It is easy to say that industry closures were all the result of overseas competition, leading to cheaper imports. That is certainly part of the problem. But along with stiffer competition we have also seen major shifts away from wood to petrochemicals as raw materials. The siding, trim, porch and deck planking and railing, and outdoor furniture in a contemporary home are likely to be composed of mostly plastic composite material. The interior of a house has plastic laminated to sawdust (particleboard) covering floors and countertops. And our electronic age has seriously reduced demand for paper.
The wood industry is not dead, but it is a much smaller component of the economy than it once was. This is true whether you are in Maine or California. Berkeley, where I applied for a job before coming to Maine, terminated its wood science program several years before we did.
Fortunately, innovative new wood products such as thermally modified wood for house siding, trim, decks and outdoor furniture could be produced in Maine. And the Advanced Engineered Wood Composite Center at UMaine is developing a number of innovative products that could become part of Maine’s future economy.
We need to also consider that Maine’s woodlands have value not only as material for products but also in the inherent value of standing timberland. Real estate investment trusts recognized this inherent value a few decades ago and bought much of the paper company lands at bargain basement prices (propping up the paper companies for a few more years). Wealthy investors, mostly from out of state, are enriching their portfolios but not creating jobs for Maine’s workers.
But Maine’s wild and scenic natural forestlands with abundant water resources have even greater value, in my estimation, as pressure relief valves for the stressed urban populations of the world. As the globe becomes warmer and, in many cases, drier, and more urbanized, our unique natural forested landscape will gain even more value.
And how do we attract these visitors? The brand with the highest cachet is the U.S. National Parks system. Continual visitor growth to Acadia National Park is testimony to that. A Northwoods National Park, with cool sylvan glades and scenic waterfalls could be an even more enticing draw — a viable option for improving the economy, and putting dollars into the pockets of Maine’s workers and businesses.
I grieve for the loss of much of Maine’s wood products industry, as well as the loss of the wood science program that was an integral part of my professional career. But hoping for a return to the past will not improve our future. While the wood science program was declining at UMaine, the forest recreation program was expanding — a portent of the future.
Richard Jagels is an emeritus professor of forest resources at the University of Maine.