PASSADUMKEAG, Maine — About $1 million in federal grants and access to the federal laboratory that began the Atomic Age will help the state’s $8.5 billion forest products industry determine its future, officials announced Wednesday.
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory — the U.S. Department of Energy‘s largest research center — will help researchers at the University of Maine tackle the future of bio-based materials, including nanocellular technology, biofuels and additive manufacturing, as part of a multi-pronged plan to guide and repair the state’s forest products industry, said Matt Erskine, a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of commerce for economic development.
Oak Ridge “is one of the most innovative research and development facilities in the nation,” Erskine said after a news conference held Wednesday at the American Forest Management wood yard.
Based in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the laboratory has a staff of 4,559 and an annual budget of $1.5 billion. It was created in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the nuclear bomb, and is home to some of the world’s largest supercomputers and sources of neutrons.
The $1 million in grants will help planners research the worldwide forest products industry and Maine’s roles within it. The money will aid mill site redevelopment, broadband access for mill communities, small business support and high school training programs, officials said. The grants include $200,000 for redevelopment of the Bucksport mill site and $145,000 to the Maine International Trade Center to aid small businesses that export wood products.
Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, said that many reports on the forest products industry’s status and future have been written. However, Strauch said, the eight-part plan represents the culmination of a historic combination of federal, state and private-sector efforts to offset something also historic: the state’s loss of half of its softwood pulp market and more than 5,000 jobs and the closure of eight pulp and paper mills or biomass electric facilities over the last five years.
“This is a road map we’ve been doing for awhile now,” Strauch said of the recommendations that came from local wood products industry members and a federal economic development assessment team that visited Maine last summer.
U.S. Sen. Angus King announced the team’s collaboration with industry players in March. Calling the mill closures “a natural disaster,” King successfully lobbied for several federal agencies to visit Maine last summer, much the way the feds would aid an area devastated by a tsunami.
King, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin commended the development team’s efforts and said the recommendations should be followed by all involved.
According to their joint statement, “It is our hope that the recommendations outlined in this report, combined with federal funding and additional commitments from several agencies, will provide a beneficial strategic roadmap that will drive economic growth in our forest economy and lead to the creation of stable, good-paying jobs for people in rural communities across Maine.”
The recommendations for the state forest products industry included the following:
— Develop an industry-wide strategic plan to assess demand for wood products and Maine’s wood supply now and in the future.
— Analyze state transportation systems to determine where infrastructure investments are necessary.
— Invest in the development and commercialization of new forest products and develop markets for forest product residual elements.
— Identify training needs to help Maine’s workforce meet industry requirements.
— Support the redevelopment of vacant mill sites and vibrant Maine communities where people want to live and visit by, among other things, investing in long-term community infrastructure.
The softwood pulp market losses, which include paper manufacturing declines, represent about a quarter of the state’s total forest products industry markets.
Representing 33,538 total jobs, the $8.5 billion industry is far from dead. It also has significant potential for expansion into new products, such as various types of oriented strand board, cross-laminated timbers, composite woods and biofuels, said Peter Triandafillou, a vice president at Huber Industries.
Yet it will take years to develop the relationships between industry players, federal and local agencies and research arms at Oak Ridge and UMaine enough to produce the recommended changes and, then, a sizeable impact upon the Maine economy, Triandafillou said.
The connections could allow investors a path from the drawing board to the marketplace. They could draw investors to Maine who would propose innovative products to existing companies and local officials, have the products’ viability researched and tested by UMaine and Oak Ridge, and then test-marketed or produced at former mill sites such as those in Bucksport, East Millinocket, Lincoln, Millinocket and Old Town, officials said.
If nothing else, the private sector’s willingness to forego sectional differences and combine with federal economic development agencies sends a strong signal to the industry that Maine is serious about reversing its recent losses, Triandafillou said.
“This report was never designed to be a silver bullet,” Triandafillou said, “but this initiative allows us to start connecting key resources.”
State, UMaine and Oak Ridge officials hope to meet to discuss next steps in a few weeks, officials said.
“Our success will not be judged in five months, but in five years,” Triandafillou said.