BELFAST, Maine — Maine’s foresters will have to get creative in finding new uses for their wood and new places to send it if the industry wants to recover from years of mill shutterings and economic upheaval, according to a report issued this week.
The Maine Forest Economy Growth Initiative’s report follows on the heels of a visit last summer by a team of federal economic development experts with the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.
The coalition says it plans to:
— Explore the global market to assess future demand for Maine wood products to determine where Maine could be more competitive.
— Analyze wood supply across the state to determine how to attract new markets.
— Look at the state’s transportation infrastructure to find out where improvements might boost the efficiency of logging operations and reduce the costs of transporting wood.
— Support, research and build markets for “emerging wood technologies,” such as biomass plants and microgrids, which could use low-value, underused wood.
— Encourage and help landowners who want to grow and harvest more wood.
— Invest in workforce development for the forestry industry.
— Encourage redevelopment or repurposing of shuttered mill sites.
— Diversify rural economies so they aren’t so heavily reliant on an individual industry.
Yellow Light Breen, president of the Maine Development Foundation, said the group has already started working to push forward these priorities and is looking for funding as the plan enters later stages.
“We’re excited to take the next crucial steps to position Maine as an innovator and leader in the global wood market, and in the process, create new jobs and revive rural communities,” Breen said.
The shuttering of six pulp and paper mills and two biomass plants across Maine in recent years prompted Maine’s congressional delegates to ask last year for help from the EDA.
The administration responded by deploying an Economic Development Assessment Team and revealed plans to invest more than $4 million in economic development projects in the state, including about $1.5 million dedicated to the beleaguered forest products industry.
The grants pushed forward several projects, including an expansion at C&L Aerospace in Bangor, funding the Maine Development Foundation to track the progress of initiatives, and supporting UMaine’s efforts to convert wood into jet fuel.
Federal Economic Development Assessment teams have been deployed just 30 times in the EDA’s history, typically following severe environmental or economic crises. The team met last August in Maine with industry officials and political leaders to tour facilities, discuss challenges, organize, find answers and offer financial support.
Even with recent industry struggles, the report estimates that Maine-made forest products contributed $8.5 billion to the state economy in 2016, and employed more than 33,500 Mainers. Still, that’s a decline from the $9.8 billion the industry generated in 2014 and the nearly 39,000 jobs it supported.
“The global forest products industry is changing, and if Maine adapts quickly and strategically, we can maintain our leading role in a global forest economy,” officials wrote in the report.
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