Maine’s forest industry renaissance is cause for celebration
This week, Oct. 20-26, marks both National Forest Products Week and Maine Forest Products Week — a double celebration that reflects how special this industry is to the Pine Tree State. For generations, Maine’s forest economy has created high-quality products the state took pride in, provided good jobs for our skilled workforce and brought millions of dollars into our state. Put simply: the forest products industry has been the backbone of Maine’s rural communities.
But a number of years ago, this historic industry started to experience some serious challenges. Both the industry and the region were hit hard by a series of mill closures in the face of shifting global market demands. As industrial sites throughout rural Maine shuttered and thousands of Maine workers lost their jobs, we faced uncertainty: would our prized forest economy ever recover? Today, after impressive innovations and major investments, we can confidently say that Maine’s forest economy is in the midst of a resurgence – and brighter days are ahead.
These successes did not come overnight, and are not the product of any one person or organization; they are the result of an all-hands-on-deck effort. After the U.S. Department of Commerce created the Economic Development Assessment Team (EDAT) at my and Senator Collins’s request, an industry-led group in partnership with the University of Maine received funding to create the Forest Opportunity Roadmap (FOR/Maine Initiative) – bringing together forest economy and community leaders with federal, state and local officials to find solutions and support this industry.
In the years since the EDAT’s creation, Maine’s forest economy has received hundreds of millions of dollars in new investments, providing a major boost for not only the industry, but also the communities that are its home. While there is more work to be done to strengthen the future of Maine’s forest economy, these investments have modernized or re-opened mills in towns across the state, or brought in new industry leaders who seek to use old sites for new purposes. This is welcome news for communities like Old Town, Jay, Rumford, Dover-Foxcroft, Madison, and more, who are seeing new life and new (or old) jobs coming back to the region.
Another key factor in the long-term health of the state’s forest products industry: innovation. Maine is leading the way on a number of cutting-edge technologies that will allow our industry to weather future market shifts and find new uses for our forests. For instance, cross-laminated timber (CLT), a clean-energy manufacturing process that allows wood to be used for major construction projects. In the past, most wood buildings did not go higher than three or four stories; with CLT, we can literally bring these buildings to new levels. This potential is already being put to use in Maine: in August, after I led a bipartisan group of Senators asking the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to establish a grant program for colleges to construct CLT buildings, the USFS issued grants to Bowdoin College and University of Maine to do exactly that.
CLT is just one example of the strong connection between Maine’s educational institutions and our forest products industry. Earlier this month, I saw the product of this partnership with my own eyes when UMaine unveiled both the world’s largest polymer 3D printer AND the world’s largest solid 3D-printed object (a 25-foot boat printed in 72 hours, fittingly named 3Dirigo). This project, which is being led by UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composite Center, is blazing new trails for the potential uses of biobased materials (think wood fiber), allowing us to build just about anything out of Maine’s vast forests. It’s sustainable, it’s forward-thinking – it’s the future.
These investments and innovations are vital, but they’d mean nothing without Maine’s two most important gifts: our plentiful forests and our creative, agile workforce. These resources make it easy for a company to see the potential of our state for long-term growth. Earlier this summer, I attended the re-opening of the Old Town Mill, where I met with workers who’ve worked at this site before it closed, and others who were relatively new to the industry. To a person, they were smart, inventive, and bullish on the future of this industry – and as long as our state counts them as an asset, I’ll be bullish on the future as well.