Maine’s New Forest Economy — The Forest Industry Reinvents Itself

by Christine Parrish

When the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, an industry advocacy group, closed its doors due to lack of membership earlier this year, it seemed that King Paper was dead.

It isn’t. It’s just no longer in charge.

At a forum sponsored by E2Tech, an organization focused on environmental technology and energy, it appears industry leaders are moving on.

While the content of the meeting was mostly about the new opportunities for biomass and wood-based biofuel, Patrick Strauch, the director of the Maine Forest Products Council, hit on the real revolution in Maine’s forest economy: collaboration.

“I never thought I would be sitting down with people like Yellow,” said Strauch, who has long been an advocate for the forest industry. He was referring to Yellow Light Breen, the president of the Maine Development Foundation. Breen’s passion is promoting economic and educational opportunity for all Mainers. 

“Now, I consider Yellow a friend,” said Strauch.

 In the world of global markets and iPads, a stable forest-based economy requires not just new products and investors, but also cooperation with community developers and others to help strengthen the economies of small rural towns. That means conservationists, officials of small towns, local non-profits, teachers, small-business owners, recreationists, and others have a real chance to help shape the future of their towns in a way that was never possible when paper was king.

Discussions about the new forest economy started in earnest last summer when economic advisors from several federal agencies — the EDAT team — came to Maine at the invitation of Senator Angus King to assess what hard-hit mill towns could do to move forward. EDAT also provided initial funding to start The Maine Forest Economy Growth Initiative, whose task is to come up with strategies to help the industry and communities prosper.

The forest sector still employs over 14,000 people directly in Maine, according to University of Maine research. One of every 24 jobs in the state is associated with the industry, which contributed $8.5 billion to the state economy last year, according to Mindy Crandall, a forest economist at the University of Maine.

Presenters spoke on the potential for biomass to supply electricity plants and Maine’s potential to become a global supplier of biomass and manufacturer of wood-based products ranging from textiles to chemical bases for pharmaceuticals — both of which could tap into an abundant wood supply, a trained workforce, and mill sites that could be redeveloped.  They are also problematic, since biomass plants are currently subsidized by the state, emit high levels of greenhouse gases out the pipe, and the impacts of removing too much woody debris from forest ecosystems is not well known.

On the low-tech side, a new local wood movement modeled on the local food movement is under way. Local Wood WORKS is a partnership between land trusts, economic development groups, conservation organizations and the Maine Forest Service. Their goal is to keep Maine forests as forestland, emphasize conservation, and keep the money generated local. Their initiatives include creating a Local Wood Heat movement that, among other things, promotes heating municipal and institutional buildings using modern wood-pellet boilers. They also promote using local-only wood products, strengthening forestry tax incentives for local landowners, and promoting business education and management related to forest products and uses.

And it’s not just a vision. Among their plans are updating building codes to include wood composite materials, a design competition focusing on Maine wood, and a Maine wood building products trade show targeting regional architects and builders.

Corrected March 31. Breen is the president of the Maine Development Foundation, not the Maine Community Foundation. -Eds

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