ORONO, Maine — Responding to a plea from Maine’s congressional delegation, the U.S. Department of Commerce is investigating how to boost the state’s beleaguered forest-products industry and communities that depend on it.
The department on Wednesday dispatched an Economy Development Assessment Team on a three-day tour of Maine mills, forestry operations and communities suffering because of the recent spate of mill closings.
“While not a silver bullet, this process is a valuable tool that will provide valuable technical assistance connecting the region and state to key resources and spurring partnerships that will be so critical,” Matt Erskine, deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Commerce, said Wednesday at a University of Maine forum.
Such Commerce Department teams have been deployed just 30 times before, usually in the wake of natural disasters or economic crises. The most recent team was formed in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which devastated the Gulf of Mexico and the region’s fishing economy.
The current federal team met Wednesday morning at the University of Maine with state economic development groups, community leaders and representatives of the forest products industry before setting out on their tour, which will include stops in Bucksport, Skowhegan, Dover-Foxcroft, Old Town and the Millinocket area. Although organized by Commerce, the federal team includes officials from eight departments.
Within about three weeks, the team is expected to report back, outlining potential strategies for revitalizing the forest economy.
“There are thousands of uses for wood,” said Tom Doak of the Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine. “Which ones in Maine do we really want to put our stake on? And which ones are the most important for us?”
In the past eight years, 10 Maine mills have shuttered, prompting Maine’s congressional delegation to draft a letter calling for federal advice, expertise and financial support. In response to what U.S. Sen. Angus King called a “disaster” and “slow-moving hurricane,” the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration decided to deploy a team to help organize.
Yellow Light Breen, president of the Maine Development Foundation, said it is time for the state to embrace “brutal honesty and unquenchable optimism,” in an effort to reshape the forest economy. His organization will be responsible for following up on the Commerce team’s recommendations and tracking what effect implementing them has on the state’s economy.
Maine’s forest industry faces special challenges, Breen said. Compared with other New England states, energy and transportation costs are high. Also, he said, the state lost 5,300 manufacturing jobs between 2008 and 2013, and its workforce is graying. (Maine has the highest median age in the country, Breen said.)
But the state also has strong assets, said Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council. Maine is home to more than 9 million acres of certified sustainable forests and is able to harvest 15 million tons of wood each year, while growing more trees than it harvests.
“We have a very solid foundation to work from,” Strauch said.
The federal team will explore ways for Maine’s forest industry to become more competitive, whether transportation for the industry can be improved and what new forest products might prove lucrative. The University of Maine, for example, has been developing a process for converting wood into jet fuel.
Late last month, the Commerce Department announced its plans to deploy the investigative team and to invest millions of federal dollars in economic development projects in the state — ranging from a grant to help a Bangor aircraft maintenance company expand to a grant to boost job training at a Maine community college.
“We had a fantastic run with the pulp and paper industry in Maine for 120 years,” said Steve Schley, a representative of Pingree Associates, which owns huge swaths of land in the Unorganized Territory. “Now, we need to look to the future.”
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