Opinion

A critical step forward for Maine’s forest industry

By U.S. Sen. Angus King
(I-Maine)

Maine has a long and proud tradition in the forest products sector dating back centuries to when our state’s towering pines were crafted into masts for the British Navy. In fact, the first sawmill in Maine was built in present-day South Berwick in 1634 and is thought to be the first over-shot water-powered site in America. Now nearly 400 years later, our forest industry remains essential to Maine’s economy and helping Maine’s rural communities thrive in the 21st century.

That’s why the recent interagency report and funding from the Economic Development Assessment Team (EDAT) is so encouraging. The EDAT, which Senator Collins and I requested last March, is an integrated, multiagency team that brings together local, state, and federal partners to build a bottom-up strategy to foster innovation and commercialization for the future of Maine’s forest-based economy. The report — released in mid-January — outlines strategies and recommendations to support this essential Maine industry and is accompanied by over $1.5 million in federal grants aimed at addressing critical needs to strengthen our biobased economy and communities across Maine.

The industry-wide collaboration encouraged by the EDAT is essential to growing the industry, identifying new markets and diversifying our rural economy. Bringing together forest products stakeholders and community leaders across the industry strengthens existing assets and workforce training. It will help create jobs, improve infrastructure and support new innovation that advances the long term economic vitality of this critical sector. This collaboration will be essential as we move forward with the implementation of the EDAT’s recommendations.

The report also identifies the importance of investment in new and innovative strategies to diversify Maine’s forest economy. Wood-engineered products like cross-laminated timber, which is being used increasingly in major construction projects, and biobased manufacturing, which has seen an exponential spike in demand around the world, are important opportunities for potential expansion. Maine is uniquely positioned to create a dynamic bioeconomy and be a leader in pioneering timber construction and we must continue our research and development efforts, such as the work happening at the University of Maine, to build up our forest economy for our rural communities.

The EDAT also leverages the full power of the federal government to provide funding and helps ensure Washington will continue to engage with local Maine communities so they can grow and prosper. The $1.5 million in funding announced with the EDAT report includes funding to the Maine International Trade Center to assist small businesses in the industry, and supports Eastern Maine Development Corp.’s commitment to help redevelopment efforts at the former mill site in Bucksport. This recent funding also comes on the heels of a $4.4 million investment for state-wide economic initiatives in Maine from the Economic Development Agency, including funding for Biobased Maine to market Maine’s abundant forest resources, and $3.3 million grant from the Department of Defense for the UMaine Forest Bioproducts Research Institute for Wood to Jet Fuel. These investments in the forest economy and rural Maine, shine a light on the significance of this industry for our state and amplify the importance of strengthening the future of the forest products sector for the hardworking men and women in Maine.

Maine is blessed with vast forest and natural resources – we are, after all, the Pine Tree State. Today, our forest economy contributes $8.5 billion a year to our GDP and employs more than 33,000 people in our state. But there is more work to do. And with the industry-led EDAT effort, we have taken a critical step forward to build on our traditions, diversify our economy and strengthen rural communities across Maine.

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