There’s no question about it. These are rough times for Maine’s forest products industry. We see the headlines about mill closures: East Millinocket, Lincoln, Old Town, Bucksport, Auburn and, closer to home, Madison. And biomass plants in West Enfield and Jonesboro have shut down while the remaining four remain at risk.

Despite the hardships, the forest products industry remains vital to our economy, particularly in rural Maine. A report released this week projects that for 2016, its economic impact will be $8.5 billion and that it will employ 33,538 people — 14,563 of them in direct jobs. Though smaller than in past years, these figures show the importance of the industry to Maine’s economy.

I represent Skowhegan and part of Madison in the Legislature. Somerset County is a crossroads of the trucking, forestry products, paper and biomass industries. Every day, I see how the forest products industry impacts the county where I live and raise my family.

I’m proud to be among the folks who are looking for solutions. I co-chair a commission created by the Legislature that’s charged with developing a road map for biomass. The commission recently got an up-close and behind-the-scenes look at some of the central Maine businesses that rely on biomass.

Biomass supports the livelihoods of about 1,000 Mainers. They work in the biomass plants themselves, creating homegrown, renewable energy that keeps dollars in our state. They also work in mills or as loggers, truckers, equipment dealers and contractors. We’re working on the industry’s long-term health so it can not only retain good-paying jobs for rural Mainers but create new ones too.

Our recent tour around Somerset and Franklin counties made it clear how various parts of the industry are connected. It’s a three-legged stool — loggers, landowners and mills — where all suffer if one fails.

At a logging site in Fairfield, we saw how much investment there is in the equipment and the workforce. A chipper can cost as much as $250,000. A feller buncher that takes down multiple trees at once can approach a half-million dollars. The employees are specially trained and make good money because of the skills involved.

In Stratton, we saw how a business known for dimensional lumber makes use of the different parts of the fir they process. Clean chips go to the paper mills, sawdust to pellet facilities and bark to biomass facilities.

Landowners, meanwhile, need to deal with lower value products to make room for the higher value ones. Having markets for all these end products promotes the health of the forest while creating recreational and wildlife opportunities.

Athens provided a particularly bright spot. A pellet manufacturer there is close to finishing a facility to generate power for its plant, which will protect the business from fluctuating energy prices. It will enjoy cost savings and will also be able to sell the extra power to the grid. They have traveled the world to learn about this technology and what they are building will serve as a model for others around Maine and beyond.

Our commission is not alone in tackling the challenges of the forest product industry.

The federal government, for example, has sent a team from the U.S. Department of Commerce to develop strategies and is providing $1.5 million in economic development grants to boost the industry.

The University of Maine, meanwhile, is working with the industry to develop a strategic plan, one that will help Maine take advantage of the opportunities that come with changing markets.

In addition to looking at the potential of new kinds of wood products, UMaine is involved in emerging technologies. Its product development center is at the forefront of manufacturing one of those new uses of wood, one that is extremely strong and can be used in a range of applications, from building products to electronics to even food. It’s nanocellulose and the university’s Product Development Center provides it to manufacturers worldwide.

We need all hands on deck for the long-term health of Maine’s forest products industry. For those of us who live in rural Maine, there’s a good chance that you have relatives, friends or neighbors involved in biomass or another part of the forest products industry. I know I do.

I keep them in mind as the commission does its work. They and the Mainers like them are why we value these important jobs in a traditional industry and are working so hard to find a path forward.

Rep. Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, is the House majority leader and co-chairman of the Commission to Study the Economic, Environmental and Energy Benefits of the Maine Biomass Industry. He represents Skowhegan and part of Madison.


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