Researchers in Maine are working on innovative ways to use wood fibers. Entrepreneurs are developing products and seeking out new, evolving markets.

Those actions don’t have the immediate impact of layoffs at a mill, nor do they hold the same grasp over our attention. But it is important that we recognize them as part of the transitioning forest products industry, and it’s vital that we elect officials who see the promise in this new wave of wood-based technologies.

No doubt, the transition has been painful. The latest bad news came Tuesday, when Verso announced it was shutting down a papermaking machine at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay, laying off 190 workers, one-third of a workforce that just last year lost another 300 employees. That brings the tally to more than 2,300 jobs lost in the paper industry since 2011, including the closure of five mills in the last two years.

That has devastated communities, not only because of lost mill jobs, but also in the effect on related businesses, such as logging and transportation, as well as on the stores, restaurants and cafes that depend on mill workers’ business.

Beyond that, these communities in many ways have been defined by their nearby mill and the way its connects their residents.

With each closure and round of layoffs, that is being lost, and it is going to be difficult to regain. Some mills are making the right investments and they may survive, even flourish. But not with the same number of employees.

One way or another, the time with mills as such a dominating presence is coming to an end. The next wave of the forest products industry won’t look like the one before it, and we shouldn’t expect it to.

Instead of one mill employing a large segment of a community’s population, and driving the economy of a region, picture a series of smaller niche mills peppering central, western and northern Maine, developing, producing and selling products like bio-based fuels, flooring and gunstocks, as some successful businesses already are.

There is potential, too, in the use of cellulose nanofibers — the building blocks of wood — to make materials such as foam insulation, as one Maine startup is doing. Wood can be used as an additive to make new plastics and chemicals, or to strengthen construction materials, with an untold number of applications.

That is the kind of work being done at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at University of Maine, a facility with 180 employees and about 500 clients worldwide. It derives 95 percent of its funding from outside Maine, showing how homegrown innovation can draw wealth to this state.

By no means are these advancements an excuse to forget about Maine’s paper mills. Despite the recent losses, they are still major employers, and they have a place in the state’s economy of the future, as long as their out-of-state, and often out-of-country, ownership makes the correct investments.

The communities that have suffered losses, too, have to be considered. State policies that lessen the blow to property taxes and school funding that communities suffer when mills lose value are necessary, and retraining, such as what is done through the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program, have to be supported and coordinated through the state’s adult and continuing education programs.

But as we respond to another round of mill layoffs, it pays to remember that the forest products industry has a bright future in Maine, as long as we make it that way.

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