HALLOWELL, Maine — Picture logging trucks lined up single-file on Interstate 95 from Houlton down to West Palm Beach.
The annual drop in Maine wood demand since 2014 would fill that imaginary 1,770-mile caravan. The loss equals about 350 fewer truckloads of wood a day, every day of the year.
That drop is one sign of the hit Maine’s forest products industry has taken in recent years, as certain paper products stare down declining demand and biomass electricity generation struggles to compete with low oil and natural gas prices.
But industry experts also see opportunity in that 3.8 million ton drop in annual wood demand.
“We’ve had a rough couple of years in the industry,” said Eric Kingsley, a consultant with Innovative Natural Resource Solutions in Portland. “We’ve lost mills, we’ve lost jobs. There will be more losses coming. But I am, long term, optimistic.”
As traditional paper businesses are shifting to growing markets in food packaging and tissue — and as the pellet industry tries to grow its share of the U.S. heating market — others are eyeing new industries to breathe life into the economic engine in Maine’s woods.
State and federal officials have been assessing Maine’s forest products industry and identifying opportunities for growth. Last week, Kingsley and many others assembled for a recent industry forum focused on that long-term future and new wood-fueled industries. The trade group E2Tech and GrowSmart Maine co-hosted the event.
Charlotte Mace, executive director of the trade group Bio-based Maine, is working with the University of Maine in Orono to help make the business case for a range of new forest product businesses, including plastics, chemicals and fuel.
“It’s about turning renewable resources into advanced products, from forest, farm and sea,” Mace said.
She and Kingsley see a few big advantages for Maine in that effort: It’s the most forested state in the country, it has the infrastructure to move lots of wood, it’s next to one of the largest groups of consumers in the world, and there’s growing global demand for supplanting fossil fuels in everyday products.
Through a federal grant, Mace’s group is seeking a firm this year to complete an inventory of the state’s existing industrial assets, including its active pulp and paper mills and shuttered sites.
It may publish that information on its website, in a format that prospective investors could search.
“We’re putting together an investment prospectus with all the information they would need to decide to invest in Maine,” Mace said. “It’s important that we share that with the international biotech industry. They’re not going to magically discover that.”
Companies such as Revolution Research of Orono, Grow-Tech of South Portland and True Textiles of Guilford already are laying the groundwork, Mace said, but her group also has started visiting trade shows to pitch Maine to some of the industry’s largest players.
Those pitches involve touting what the state already has, with vast forests and the equipment and skill in harvesting that wood fiber. In 2015, Mace said her group started discussions with a major bioplastics manufacturer who was concerned about their ability to source enough wood.
“It was about 1.8 percent of our annual harvest to supply this big plant,” Mace said. “We definitely have what it takes, it’s just putting the pieces together.”
That, she cautioned, could take some time.
“It’s a whole process and supply chain that has to be put together in a very strategic and deliberate way,” Mace said.
While a second golden age for Maine’s forest economy awaits the right market and the right investors, Mace said the science points in Maine’s favor.
“Everything in our lives can really be made from the cellulose of wood, and this is really the long-term vision,” Mace said. “We want to manufacture these high-end products, and we want to manufacture them in Maine.”