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Paper mills are closing, but Maine’s economy still relies on logging

Posted Sept. 19, 2016, at 2 p.m.

Bath Iron Works’ loss of a crucial contract last week casts a pall over more than a thousand shipbuilding jobs in Maine. But another traditional industry argues it still has a bright future in the state, no matter the headlines.

Logging has big potential ahead, “despite the steady drumbeat of doom and gloom in media reports suggesting Maine should move on from its forest-based heritage,” the industry’s top representative, Dana Doran, wrote in a recent report.

Even with the fall of Maine paper mills, the state relies more on the logging industry for jobs than any other place in the country.

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Federal data shows that Maine has a higher concentration of logging and forestry jobs than any state, beating out Washington for that title in 2015.

The figures highlight part of Maine’s continuing reliance on traditional manufacturing — such as shipbuilding — and production industries, despite a general shift towards more service-sector jobs.

The report by Doran’s trade association, the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, illustrates what’s at stake for a forest products economy that has logging at its roots. It estimates that logging and forestry contributed $882 million to Maine’s economy in 2014, and employed more people than federal figures show.

That estimate includes all of the industry’s indirect impacts, such as wages in industries supplying logging and forestry businesses and household purchases with income wholly or partly dependent on the industry.

The study reflects a period before many of the states paper mills closed and when the market was stronger for selling lower-grade wood to biomass generators in the state.

The industry in the past year wielded its influence in Augusta and Washington, securing bills to prop up the state’s biomass generators, ease taxes on certain logging equipment, and to study and develop a path forward for the forest products industry, even getting help from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Trends in exports show some signs of the broader forest product industry’s troubles. While the PLC study notes that wood, wood pulp, and paper and paperboard were among the state’s top exports in 2015, those categories have been declining overall and have lost rank against other product categories.

Lobster sales have led seafood exports to the top spot.

Paper and wood pulp categories have lost the most ground, reflecting a declining in-state market for raw wood fiber. Other wood products including wood chips, wood pellets and other wood used for everything from firearms parts to furniture have remained steady.

Federal data shows payroll employment in logging has remained relatively steady in recent years, though the figures don’t include sole proprietors who operate their own logging business, with no employees.

The PLC study, completed by the University of Maine, Farm Credit East and Northeast Forests LLC, estimated a large gap in that workforce data. It estimates that forestry and logging directly employs more than 4,600 people, twice the total in the federal data, with secondary employment of 7,342, including jobs in trucking, in 2014.

While the study points out the industry’s importance, Doran stops short of predicting a future. He highlights the possibility that the country’s most densely forested state is “ideally positioned to take a leading role in the global forest-based economy and write new chapters in its history if it can adapt to the realities of today’s market and capitalize on the strengths of its abundant resources and experience.”


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