Since 2010, about half of Maine’s pulp and paper mills have closed, devastating in just a few years’ time an industry that took decades to build. To many communities, it felt like the end of something.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. The factors that grew the paper industry and the larger forest products sector – abundant wood, experienced harvesters, access to markets, an allied university – still exist.

As a new report makes clear, Maine just needs one more thing: leadership.

ROADMAP FOR FUTURE

The Forest Industry Roadmap, a $1 million study commissioned following the spate of mill closures, shows how Maine can have a “second golden age of forestry,” as long as it wants it.

The mills that failed largely made paper products for which demand fell steeply. Those that shifted earlier toward shipping materials, specialty papers and tissue continue to do well, and others are following their lead – look at Sappi’s recent $200 million investment at its plant in Skowhegan.

The surviving mills and Maine’s lumber industry form the strong backbone of the forest products sector. Filling the gaps will be a new generation of innovative, high-value wood derivatives.

The traditional and emerging wood products together can form the next great wave of the industry, one that continues to support the loggers, truckers and millworkers who have long played a critical role in the state’s economy, as well as the communities that were built on pulp, paper and lumber.

NOTHING WASTED

It’s all interconnected. The wood is taken out of the woods by loggers and truckers, and the wood appropriate for sawn lumber, so valuable to landowners, is used for that purpose. The materials used by the pulp and paper industry directly support hundreds of workers throughout the state.

And the leftovers and residuals can be used for the next generation of products, such as cross-laminated timber, in which low-value softwoods are laid at right angles and fused with glue and pressure. It can be used structurally in construction, and two companies that produce it already are expanding into Maine.

There is also nanocellulose, a light and strong material made when algae eats wood pulp – it can be used for a variety of applications, including for fuel, body armor and medical devices. The University of Maine is heavily involved in research and development for nanocellulose.

Add in dissolving pulp, not currently made in Maine, and one can see how wood-based materials will compete with concrete, steel, cotton and nylon across many uses.

HIGH STAKES

The challenge for Maine during this transitional phase in the forest products industry is to get everyone pushing in the same direction. It will take leaders at all levels to get that done.

It will take leaders to convince global companies and investors that both the new and traditional products are worth their attention, and that the investment should be made here. It will take leaders to convince communities that new technologies can replace the ones that can no longer support jobs, and to convince contractors that the new materials being made here are just as good as the old ones.

And it will take leaders to coordinate all this together, so that Maine forests are harvested as they should be, and the wood is processed here – into its highest and best use.

FOR/Maine, the group of industry, university and nonprofit representatives that commissioned the study, is a great start. But they need help from local and state elected officials in order for the forest products industry imagined in the report to be realized.

Nothing less than the future of the state economy is at stake.