Maine’s forest industry could enter a “second golden age” if it invests in making a diverse array of timber products, extending beyond paper and the traditional building materials that once buoyed the state’s economy, an industry group said Tuesday.
FOR/Maine, a coalition of people who have spent the past two years studying the industry’s future, outlined a blueprint Tuesday to help it rebound.
The panel of industry players and researchers hope their five-point plan will steer the once-prosperous industry to grow 40 percent over the next six years — from $8.5 billion to $12 billion by 2025.
The ambitious proposal, unveiled at the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources, calls for a coordinated effort of both private and public partners to make major investments in a combination of traditional and innovative wood products, in an effort to reimagine the potential of Maine’s vast forest resources and replace income from a beleaguered paper manufacturing economy.
“In the embers of that crisis is the seeds of regeneration,” said Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation and a FOR/Maine Steering committee member.
Surviving in an increasingly paperless future will rely on a combination of traditional building materials — saw logs and paper — and emerging products, such as eco-friendly chemicals and biodegradable plastics, he said. Many of those newer products — which some Maine-based entrepreneurs have already invested in — are produced from the byproducts of traditional wood manufacturing.
“The products coming out of Maine forests in the future may look radically different,” Charlotte Mace, executive director of Biobased Maine, said.
The industry in Maine, the country’s most forested state, is already moving in that direction, with some major investments in mills being made in the past year. But progress has been slow. As the demand for paper continues to drop, Maine has watched its paper mills die and emerging alternatives — such as a shift toward packaging and tissue products — have yet to offset the economic loss.
Plans to build bioproducts parks around four largely state-subsidized biofuel plants are also still fledgling. In June, Aroostook County generator ReEnergy said they could shut down this fall, and generator Stored Solar has had outages lasting months this year.
The group Tuesday promoted a more aerial view of their plan rather than chart it in specific details — they did not put a number on how much money it would take to bring their 40 percent goal to fruition. Instead, FOR/Maine co-chair Patrick Strauch cited a handful of operations or organizations that have made recent multimillion dollar investments to revitalize existing or former mills.
Panelists said two years of planning and “hardcore” research went into their five-point list of recommendations:
— Investing in Maine’s existing forest product economy;
— Promoting sustainable forestry practices;
— Developing a larger workforce;
— Supporting the rural communities where the industry’s future lies but mills closures have left hard-hit; and
— Finding public sector partners willing to help achieve this broad-reaching plan.
That strategy hinges largely the state’s willingness to embrace change and pay for technological investments — a process that could be as simple as adding a new product line onto an existing mill’s infrastructure to investing in a new piece of technology that’s still in the infancy of its research and development, Breen said.
A full version of the report is available online.
Courting buy-in — and a workforce — from communities that have built their identities around paper will be critical. Peggy Daigle, an East Millinocket selectwoman and retired town manager who has worked for four different paper mill communities, said it won’t be easy.
“I think leadership is a big issue — not just federal [and] state, but local, too,” Daigle said.
A former mill town such as East Millinocket — nicknamed the “town that paper made” — might shy away from “hokey” new products that bear little resemblance to the products and technologies of Maine’s heritage lumber industry, she suggested.
“[But] If we stay doing the same old things and expect different results,” she added, “I think someone has coined that as the definition of being insane.”
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