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January 13, 2017

'Road map' for strengthening state's forest economy sets nine priorities

Photo / James McCarthy
Photo / James McCarthy
Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of Maine Development Foundation, speaks during a July 29 press conference at the University of Maine in Orono, as UMaine President Susan Hunter, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Commerce for Economic Development Matt Erskine, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, U.S. Sen. Angus King, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, and James Chittum, director of business development at Grow-Tech LLC, listen intently. Breen is co-chairman of the Maine Forest Economy Growth Initiative.

Coalition identifies nine priorities

Conduct a global market assessment to assess future demand for Maine wood products.

Conduct a statewide wood supply analysis to attract new markets.

Conduct a transportation analysis to determine where infrastructure improvements are necessary to increase efficiencies and lower costs for the forest products value chain.

Support and grow markets for low-value, underutilized wood and support biomass energy wood opportunities with: Combined Heat and Power biomass plants, micro-grids and modern thermal systems.

Invest in the research, development, and commercialization of emerging wood technologies - such as forest bioproducts - as an opportunity for the utilization of low-value fiber.

Support small landowners who want to grow and harvest more wood.

Invest in logger and forest products workforce development.

Redevelop and reutilize or repurpose Maine's closed mill industrial sites.

Diversify and strengthen Maine's rural economy:

• support small businesses,

• invest in community infrastructure,

• expand broadband, and

• support rural tourism development.

Stakeholders in Maine's $8.5 billion forest products industry unveiled this week a nine-point strategy to attract capital investment and develop new opportunities in that sector that will sustain good-paying jobs in Maine's rural communities.

The Maine Forest Economy Growth Initiative's recommendations and report lay out a road map for identifying current and emerging global forest products in which Maine is likely to be most competitive. The report also analyzes the capacity of Maine's current and future wood supply to support new and future markets.

"A dedicated and diverse group of Mainers has spent months working together to understand where Maine's forest economy has been, where it is today, and what needs to be done to strengthen and diversify our valued forest products industry," said Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council and co-chairman of the working group. "We're pleased with the results of that collaboration and feel that accomplishing these nine priorities over the next three years will help to sustain and transform the forest economy."

The working group's top priority is to identify the key opportunities and the challenges that must be met to attract capital investment, particularly in communities affected by the closure of six pulp and paper mills and two biomass electricity-generating plants in the past three years that has led to a $1.3 billion decline in total economic impact of Maine's forest products industry since 2014. More than 5,000 jobs were lost as a result. Total employment in the sector today stands at more than 33,500 workers.

Other priorities include:

  • Improving Maine's transportation infrastructure to move wood to market
  • Developing more outlets for "forest residuals" such as through combined heat-and-power projects
  • Increasing outreach to small woodland owners
  • Investing in the commercialization of new products, including products using biobased chemicals, fuels and materials made from pulp wood, which can then be used to make a whole host of everyday products.

For communities such as Madison and Millinocket that have been impacted by pulp and paper mill closures, priorities include redevelopment of the closed mill sites and diversifying and strengthening the rural economy.

Yellow Light Breen, president and CEO of the Maine Development Foundation and co-chairman of the working group, said the group has already begun working to advance the priorities and is searching for additional funding to build the plan.

"We are excited to take the next crucial steps to position Maine as an innovator and leader in the global wood market, and in the process create new jobs and revive our rural communities," said Breen.

The coalition's work also included hosting a three-day visit to Maine last summer by a federal Economic Development Assessment Team that included representatives from several federal agencies. Breen and Strauch indicated they expect any federal report coming from EDAT to incorporate and respond to the coalition's nine priorities and would begin to identify resources both immediate and long term to move the work forward.

Industry and state resources will also be critical to success, they stated.

The Maine Forest Economy Growth Initiative members are: Patrick Strauch, Maine Forest Products Council, co-chairman; Yellow Light Breen, Maine Development Foundation, co-chairman; Donna Cassese, Maine Pulp & Paper Association / SAPPI Fine Papers; Tom Doak, Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine; Dana Doran, Professional Logging Contractors of Maine; Steve Schley, Pingree Associates; Charlotte Mace, Biobased Maine; Stephen Shaler, University of Maine; Jake Ward, University of Maine; Peggy Daigle, consultant; Andy Hamilton, Eaton Peabody attorneys at law; Charlie Spies, CEI Capital Management.

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