BANGOR — How to overcome challenges facing the paper industry was the focus of a statewide summit on the future of the state’s largest export Tuesday.

The summit, hosted by the Maine Pulp and Paper Association, addressed what can be done to preserve and promote Maine’s paper industry jobs for the future.

Russ Drechsel, president of Madison Paper Industries, and Dale Wibberly, human resources manager at Sappi Fine Paper’s Somerset Mill in Skowhegan, were among dozens of speakers at the summit, which drew about 250 people to the Hilton Garden Inn.

“Each mill is committed to investing in infrastructure and ensuring the competitiveness of its own operations, but even the most successful mills need support on issues such as energy costs and tax policy to continue to compete and thrive in today’s challenging times,” said Donna Casesse, chair of the Maine Pulp and Paper Association and managing director for wood resource strategy for Sappi North America, in opening remarks. “This industry is important to Maine families and to the greater Maine economy. We are gathered here today because we are committed to creating a policy climate to help ensure this industry’s survival.”

With recent negative headlines surrounding the paper industry, including news Monday that Verso Corp. is considering the sale or bankruptcy of its Androscoggin Mill in Jay, as well as concerns over unfair trade practices and layoffs across the state, those gathered at Tuesday’s summit spoke both to the challenges facing the industry and their hopes for overcoming recent setbacks.

Paper remains the state’s largest export and the industry currently generates more than $270 million per year in wages, at a pay rate that places Maine at the seventh highest paper wages in the country, according to Maine State Economist Amanda Rector.

“We still have a paper industry,” said Duane Lugdon, a union representative for United Steelworkers of Maine. “Everyone of us here today needs to be dedicated to making the future secure. We have to teach the general population that the paper industry is not dying and prepare them to enjoy an industry that indeed has had some difficulties, but is an industry that does have a future.”

Drechsel, the president of Madison Paper Industries in Madison, spoke of the need for lower energy costs in Maine, urging lawmakers to support the construction of more natural gas pipeline in New England.

He said the New England region needs an additional 2 billion cubic feet of pipeline in order to meet the needs not just of paper mills, but other consumers as well.

Madison Paper is awaiting the outcome of a federal trade complaint alleging unfair subsidies that have hurt the market for supercalendered paper. The mill has also been particularly hard hit by energy costs, according to Drechsel, who said that over the last two winters the mill has experienced several shut downs because of the high cost of energy.

Speakers at Tuesday’s summit also touched on challenges the industry is facing in the logging industry, property taxes for paper mills and transportation challenges, such as the lack of reliable rail service. But speakers also pointed to good news in Maine’s paper industry, including the job outlook at Sappi’s Somerset Mill in Skowhegan, which plans to add “several hundred jobs over the next three to five years,” according to human resources manager Dale Wibberly.

The mill currently employs about 760 people, and will see an increased need to hire new employees in the coming years to replace an aging workforce.

The average salary at the mill is about $78,000, Wibberly said. “That’s not bad for central Maine,” he said.

Lawmakers who recently went on a statewide tour of four mills spoke about what they learned on those visits and pledged support to the paper industry, particularly in the area of getting lower cost energy into the state.

Speaker of the House Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, also spoke about the development of new training programs in the logging and forest products area that he said will contribute to the re-writing of Maine’s paper industry story.

“I think it is these types of public-private partnerships that will help write our comeback story,” Eves said. “What I’ve learned is there is no silver bullet, no simple solution but we have a whole list of recommendations of things we can be doing.”

House Majority Leader Jeff McCabe, D-Skowhegan, said in a statement after that the summit that hearing the speakers was invaluable.

“It’s critical for policymakers to see firsthand how these mills operate, deal with their challenges and take advantage of opportunities,” said McCabe, whose district includes Skowhegan and part of Madison. “These paper-making jobs are vital to the economic health of working families – our friends and neighbors – and communities around the state. We know that these Maine workers can compete with their counterparts anywhere around the world. We as a state need to figure out how we can help them excel.”