July 13, 2020

Forest products industry in distress

I was dismayed, but not surprised by the Nov. 16 BDN story, “Report denies Canadian loggers depress wages.” The 250-page Maine Department of Labor (MDOL) report, as quoted in the Bangor Daily News, states, “Mechanization of the logging industry is gaining momentum, parly as a result of a chronic shortage of labor in the northern woods.” The article goes on to explain, “Demanding working conditions, commuting distances and the general population views traditional logging work as unattractive.”

Wouldn’t it be easy if that were the whole truth? That the problem of a declining forest products industry could be blamed on a lazy bunch of whining Mainers who refuse to take the tough jobs in the woods? The MDOL would get a free ride if I let those statements go unchallenged.

The use of Canadian labor is not the root of the problem, just a symptom of a bigger problem — the methodical dismantling of an industry. There are several forces at work. The most powerful are: industry, environmentalists and lack of leadership in Maine government.

In response to growing criticisms from environmentalists the forest industry developed programs like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Certified Logging Program (CLP) and demanded their contractors participate. Unfortunately, these programs put great financial hardships on loggers.

According to studies, the cost of the CLP program to a single out-of-state contractor is $1,617.69. In Maine it’s closer to $2,000. Smaller operators, landowners, farmers and others in Maine who did not benefit from taking the CLP course (i.e., through lower workers’ comp rates) were also required to take the course. Many part-time loggers couldn’t sustain the extra costs and gave up logging. Some would say $2,000 is not that much. In 1985 I was paid $30 per cord for pine pulp, $40 per cord for hardwood. Today I am paid $2 less per cord and I pay more stumpage to the landowner while absorbing the impact of inflation on my daily expenses.

Like other loggers, I have big new expenses like bridge building, gravel and culverts, necessary to meet environmental laws. Meanwhile, these expenses are not covered by corresponding increases in wood prices.

Maine mills (again under environmentalist pressure) stopped buying wood during mud season (about six weeks). That put loggers out of work. Mills instituted policies such as forcing woodcutters to cut all dead trees. They then refused to buy the deadwood. That’s more lost work time. The logging industry has become very competitive. In times of excess raw materials mills instituted quotas. Loggers were restricted on the number of loads delivered. The net result? Mills favored some contractors over others and pulp was left to dry in the summer sun. That’s more loss and an inconsistent market.

Maine government is not blameless. We needed solid forest policy and in-depth research into issues like:

Why Canadians could undercut Maine mills by buying our logs, shipping them out of the country and sending them back as a finished product? Why Canadian industry flourished a few miles from the border while on the Maine side there was nothing?

Instead, politicians and activists were finding new ways to gain regulatory control of the Maine forest, (i.e., the Forest Compact and the Ban Clearcutting referendum). Was anyone asking why loggers had to produce more wood to survive? Did anyone care? It’s easy to say “improve logging practices,” it’s another to pay for it. No one in state leadership understood that today’s wood prices are based on an earlier time. No one understand (or cared?) that as government placed more regulation, paperwork and education mandates — without adjusting prices to reflect new costs — they simply started businesses and sent jobs to more friendly places like Canada.

It is apparent that the forest products industry is in serious distress. As a state legislator, let me suggest several ways government can answer the distress signals:

The Joint Standing Committee on Conservation, Forestry and Agriculture should hold statewide public hearings, listening to people in the logging industry on exactly what’s going on.

Create a fair, less expensive logger certification program, with oversight to guarantee fairness.

Implement grant programs to directly help loggers cover costs for bridges, culverts and other expensive mandates.

Redirect state foresters to work cooperatively with loggers.

Present legislation guaranteeing mills shall not discriminate among contractors.

Create a task force to investigate ways to better compete with other countries by developing value-added businesses, a commitment to market Maine wood products harvested by Maine workers.

Start a forest industry education program, perhaps a documentary for distribution.

Develop financial incentives, public recognition, for loggers doing good work.

Hold a bipartisan meeting to formulate a solid public forest policy committed to a future-based forest economy and sound conservation.

Maine needs some decisive leadership before it’s too late.

State Rep. A. David Trahan, R-Waldoboro, represents District 59.

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