EDGECOMB, Maine — The recently closed paper mills in central and northern Maine might not be geographically close to the midcoast, but the impact of the shutdowns is taking a toll on loggers and harvesters in Lincoln County and surrounding communities.
As paper mills shut down, it not only leads to job losses for workers and contractors at the industrial plants themselves, but also a loss of market for the low-grade wood harvested for paper and pulp throughout the state, creating a negative effect on a number of trades connected to the mills.
“The loss of mill jobs is a drop in the well of the larger economic impact,” said Eric Carlson, of C&L Forestry Inc. in Edgecomb.
Carlson sees the disappearing market for low-grade wood as a big factor impacting individuals and businesses in the pulp and paper industry across the state.
“The biggest issue with the paper mills closing is the loss of markets for low-grade wood. Paper is made from low-grade wood. You don’t need beautiful, straight pine trees for pulpwood,” Carlson said.
Of late, the closure of a pulp mill in Old Town and the Verso Paper Mill in Bucksport, in addition to the filing of bankruptcy by Lincoln Paper and Tissue and layoffs at Verso’s Androscoggin Mill in Jay have created a dearth of capital in a once wide-open marketplace.
“The biggest trickle effect is less market. The markets that are left are full. We are only moving a third of the product. You have to watch every penny and every dollar like you never have before,” said Nathan Northrup, of Nathan O. Northrup Forest Products & Earthwork in Jefferson.
Adam Rice, of Adam Rice Forestry LLC in Walpole, said that despite the shrinking of the market, production of forest products is still strong, creating a scenario of oversupply.
“There are a lot of good loggers in Maine working hard, but we need an outlet for the product. I feel we are right on the cusp of a new generation of loggers, but we need an outlet for the product. It would be a real shame to lose the industry,” Rice said.
With the loss of markets, it is difficult for logging operations to move particular types of timber that once formed strong portions of their day-to-day harvesting.
Specifically, despite the downturn in the region’s paper industry, high-quality paper with higher density, smoothness, and gloss, produced predominantly from hardwood trees, helps hardwood remain a marketable asset, while the once-booming market for paper produced from softwood pulp continues to dry up.
“Getting rid of softwood is the biggest key of all. Selling hardwood is no problem, but if people can’t cut softwood, everyone is only going to look at hardwood,” said Wade Bartlett, a logger from Jefferson.
This focus on harvesting one type of timber not only impacts logging operations’ bottom lines, but can lead to strands of low-grade wood being left on woodlots, since loggers cannot sell the product.
Carlson said that due to the low economic value of softwood trees, they are often left unharvested on woodlots, creating a situation where the removal of inferior stems for stand improvement is not occurring.
“It’s getting pretty hard to practice good forestry techniques. There are a lot of woodlots that need improvement cutting,” Carlson said.
One potentially growing market for low-grade wood lies with the use of wood chips and wood pellets in biomass to be turned into biofuel to power utilities.
The sustainable biomass industry has experienced substantial growth over the past decade, but record-low prices for fossil fuels have hurt the industry.
“Low fossil fuel costs are creating a little bit of a perfect storm. Chips for what we sell as biomass compete with these (fossil fuels),” Rice said.
Additionally, Carlson said that despite the emerging market for biofuel, the new outlet for products does not replace the funds derived from the paper and pulp industry in past years.
“It doesn’t come close to making up for the loss of the whole pulp and paper industry,” Carlson said.
He also said chipping wood into pellets requires a sizable investment in equipment that may be beyond the reach of many local businesses.
“To have a whole tree-chipping industry is substantial for most woodlots. Logistically and economically, every lot can’t sustain the amount of equipment needed,” Carlson said.
With the pronounced downturn in existing markets, the importance of the mills still open is heightened, notably the paper mill owned by Verso Paper in Jay.
Will Hickey, of Hickey Logging & Tree Work in West Gardiner, said the importance of the Jay mill to the industry cannot be underestimated.
“A lot of people don’t realize how much the state is going to be hurting if that mill closes,” Hickey said.
Northrup said the industry will continue to try and stay competitive despite the loss of markets.
“We are keeping it going, but I don’t know how long we can keep it going,” Northrup said.