Jim Nichols speaks to his crew Thursday by way of walkie-talkie on the job site in Oquossoc village in Rangeley. Nichols founded Nichols Brothers Logging with his brother Billy 41 years ago in Rumford. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

RUMFORD — Jim Nichols’ logging company had three trucks on the road to Jay the day the digester at the Pixelle Specialty Solutions mill exploded.

“Had to turn around, unload and the wood’s still sitting in our yard,” he said. “Nobody, not just us, nobody has been able to take them a load of round wood since the day that blew up. It was the end of it immediately.”

Without that pulp digester, the Jay mill can’t process his wood. That single mill buys roughly 20% of the annual tree harvest in Maine, according to an industry trade group. Deliveries have now largely stopped.

Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, figures business is down 30% to 40% statewide due to the double gut-punch of the Jay explosion and dramatic decline in paper use during the pandemic.

The pulp and paper industry has been battered up and down the supply chain: Landowners without a good price or without willing buyers have been forced to sit back, and mills are strategically deciding what to make next.

Or in Pixelle’s case, whether to even fix the digester.

Last week, Pixelle announced its 177th layoff in Jay since July — it’s now down to almost half as many employees as the mill started the year with — while a Rumford union warned of up to 122 job losses to come at ND Paper as that mill looks more to packaging.

Jim Nichols, right, chats with his brother Billy Nichols in a logging processor on the job site Thursday in Oquossoc village in Rangeley. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Since July, logging volume is down 50% at Nichols Brothers Logging, the 20-person operation Jim Nichols opened with his brother Billy 41 years ago.

“It’s a really, really challenging market right now because of a number of factors, the toughest I’ve ever seen in my career,” Nichols said. “Over the last 25 years, we’ve become as efficient as we possibly can. You can’t make up a 50% loss.”

‘REALLY VERY FUNDAMENTAL’

Loggers here had an unfortunate front row seat to the pandemic, feeling the effects before most other industries.

“We first started seeing signs of changes back in January-February when the Woodland mill, which is up in Baileyville, started to see export retraction,” Doran said. “About 70% of the pulp they make is exported to China. When COVID really started to impact China and Asian markets, that’s when they saw retraction, so things started to go south as far as January-February for some contractors across the state.”

The Jay explosion in April added “insult to injury.”

“The Jay mill represents 2 million tons of fiber consumption (annually) between paper chips and biomass they would buy,” he said. “That’s almost 61,000 truckloads of wood that will not be delivered to Jay going forward, since April.”

Doran is anticipating a 3 million- to 4 million-ton drop in harvest this year between the explosion and pandemic, which accelerated digital trends.

At just the Rumford mill, some printing and writing paper sales are expected to drop up to 30% this year, the company said last week.

A logging forwarder in Oquossoc village in Rangeley unloads logs destined to become two-by-fours. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

In a recent one-month snapshot, the American Forest & Paper Association found sales of printing and writing papers down 20% nationwide while packaging papers and specialty packaging shipments were up 14% — think more boxes, more Amazon, more e-commerce — compared to 2019.

“Before COVID, people went to work and went to schools, they left their homes and went places,” Shane R. O’Neill, forest industry business development manager at the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources, said. “If a school is closed, how much paper product is that school going to use? How many homework packets are teachers printing? The graphic print paper, the copier print paper almost went to zero.”

Jason Joiner, a special projects director for the Pulp and Paperworkers’ Resource Council and union president at a mill in Ticonderoga, New York, said they expect to see job losses and closures nationally from the pandemic.

“I know some of the mills in the South that haven’t made a sheet of paper in months and months and months, but didn’t lay people off because they felt it was important to keep them engaged,” Joiner said.

Larger mills are in a better position to diversify and he’s also seeing that.

“In times like this, they start trying to figure out what they can make, whether it’s a medical grade paper that goes on a table or a paper gown, how they can apply the process that we have to an application that already exists but might not be filled with paper,” he said. “I know in these communities we have mills — whether they’re making wood pellets or they’re making paper or they’re making wood flour for furniture — (and) for every job you see in one of those mills there are anywhere from three to five jobs in the community that are supported by that job. They’re really very fundamental.”

Jim Nichols reviews a new GPS device with his brother Billy Nichols on a job site Thursday in Oquossoc village in Rangeley. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

In June, Maine had 4,457 pulp and paper jobs and 1,662 loggers, according to the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research. Both are down markedly in the last decade: A 40% loss for paper, 28% for logging.

Ryan Wallace, director of the Maine Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Southern Maine, said his center is in the midst of a project for the Forest Opportunity Roadmap/Maine initiative focused on workforce.

Launched two years ago and overseen by the Maine Development Foundation, FOR/Maine has a goal of growing forest products in the state from an $8.5 billion industry in 2018 to $12 billion in 2025.

Prepandemic, the effort was making headway, he said.

“I think obviously it’s put a hold, or at least put some uncertainty, into the equation on how attainable those goals are by 2025,” Wallace said. “I still think there’s a lot of diversity in addition to pulp and paper, your core Maine forest product sectors. In that respect, I’m still a bit bullish to some degree. I’m guardedly optimistic as we move through the pandemic.”

FUTURE FACING

He and O’Neill are both excited about the markets where Maine could grow: Increased biofuel production, cross-laminated timber manufacturing, even exploring plastic bottle alternatives with Poland Spring.

“There’s this whole myriad of categories that trees were never really a part of,” O’Neill said. “That opens up these other pathways, so if one thing’s down, you’re not hurting as bad.”

Maine’s “tremendous resource” isn’t going away, Wallace said. “The sector is still in a good position. It’s sustainably managed. There’s just a lot of assets that make it attractive to investors.”

A century ago, some mills here made ship masts and crates. O’Neill reads into that history room for optimism and the ability to respond to shifting demand.

“At the community level, it’s being open to change,” he said. “A lot of times what happens is that you’ve been at something for so long that changing what you do doesn’t feel right, and that’s sometimes very hard for a community to do. But going through that process you come out of it stronger.”

Though in the midst: “It’s not pleasant.”

The forecast layoff in Rumford is nearly 20% of that mill’s workforce. Rumford Town Manager Stacy Carter said he appreciates that NP Paper is modernizing the mill for the future and plans to support residents “in every way possible to transition to new employment, seek skills training or consider small business ventures.”

Town Manager Shiloh LaFreniere in Jay said that town’s been on a roller coaster with the mill for five years.

“During our town budget season last winter, I think that we were finally starting to feel that there might be some stability,” she said. “Then in April, the explosion happened.”

She’s cautiously optimistic Pixelle will decide to rebuild the digester and continue to invest there.

It’s a proposition made trickier with the pandemic.

On top of the massive expense, “you need tradespeople from all over the country or the world when nobody can travel because of COVID. There’s that whole logistical mess,” O’Neill said. “You can’t even put them up in a hotel because of travel bans.”

Spokesman Alan Ulman said last week that the mill’s long-term plan, including whether to rebuild, is still being determined. It’s getting by for now on processed pulp bought from other mills. Doran believes some if it is coming in from out of state.

Doran said his group has reached out to the Mills administration and Maine congressional delegation to do everything they can to encourage Pixelle to rebuild. He’s also hopeful about Rumford’s investment in packaging grades.

“We don’t see a major change in the amount of fiber they’re going to consume,” he said. “We’re hopeful over time it’s going to increase.”

In the meantime, he’s also working with the congressional delegation to include loggers in any future federal coronavirus aid bill and cautiously eyeing the currently hot lumber market — “one bright spot of all the 2020 travesty with COVID” — hoping that it can remain strong without inflation cooling demand.

Logger Nichols, a past president of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, said it feels like a lot of unknowns from where he sits.

“We have the big loss at Pixelle, we have that uncertainty — are they going to rebuild? Are they not going to rebuild? We don’t know that answer,” he said. “Even if they rebuild, we really don’t know how long that will take. We have the uncertainty with Nine Dragons (ND Paper) and what we’ve been told over the last weeks. It’s really uncertainty and you’re trying to plan on how to run your business.”

What’s ahead for 2021? He’s not sure.

“It’s not retirement,” Nichols said. “We’re going to try to figure this out. … I remain optimistic for the community and the loggers and the truckers and everybody that creates jobs for us.”


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