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Many forces battering Maine's logging industry, from the pandemic to an aging workforce

Lumber industry
Robert F. Bukaty
Massive stacks of eastern white pine dwarf Glenn Rowe, a scaler at Hancock Lumber, Tuesday, June 5, 2018, in Bethel, Maine. Rowe uses a scaling ruler to measure length and diameter to determine how many board feet the mill will get after the wood is cut.

Maine's logging industry is struggling.

Market disruptions from the ongoing pandemic, the 2020 explosion of a pulp digester at the Jay mill and a shortage of workers to harvest wood and drive logging trucks are creating anxiety about the future. And the industry says it needs help.

In a meeting with U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Rep. Jared Golden at a Fayette logging operation this week, about a dozen logging contractors said one of the biggest challenges they face is the need for workers.

"We need help with, with getting younger people into our business and being able to train them," says Tom Cushman, who owns Maine Custom Woodlands in Durham with his wife Beth.

It's a timber harvesting, land management and excavation company with 28 employees. Cushman says it's already difficult to attract and retain workers, and he's worried that passage of President Biden's infrastructure plan could siphon away people for more lucrative jobs.

"So all of a sudden we're building bridges and roads and that sort of thing. And it takes more employees away from our work force. And many of the jobs are federally funded so they're able to pay more...so that competition is tough," he says.

Even before the pandemic, a 2019 study by the University of Southern Maine and the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine found that over the next decade, the logging industry would need to hire at least 2,000 people to fill the shoes of aging loggers who are likely to retire in droves.

That's because the average age of a Maine logger is 45 or older. But contractors say finding and training loggers and log haulers isn't easy.

There used to be 20 technical high school logging programs in the state of Maine, but today there's five, according to Dana Doran, executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine. He told the U.S. Labor secretary that not only are there fewer high school vocational programs, but it's expensive to train new employees.

"It costs each one of these contractors $100,000 in the first year to train a new employee, $100,000, and they can't afford it. So we need to shift that burden, we need to create a pathway just like every other trade, whether it's welding, plumber, pipefitter. We're doing it ourselves but we need some more help," Doran says.

At 62, Don Cole of Sidney is cutting white pine saw logs on a small thinning operation in Fayette. He operates a state-of the art wood processor that cuts trees to a pre-determined length and strips them of smaller branches. Cole says he thinks about retirement but he's a third generation logger who's got a family business to run.

"I'm the president of Trees Limited, which I own with my younger brother, Will. And here on my right is my nephew Zac Cole and my son, Justin Cole...and we're hopeful that there'll be a business here for them to continue into," he says.

Zac and Justin are both in their 20s, so they're a bit of an anomaly in the logging industry. Justin says he doesn't know anyone his age who's chosen this line of work. But both say it's a decent living that offers flexibility and the chance to learn other skills. Zac has already built his own house, which he says he wouldn't have been able to do if he didn't work in the woods.

"So I kept the logs and I milled them and had access to all that stuff so that saved me money. I don't require much to live," he says.

As he looks toward the younger generation to take over the business, Don Cole says he's worried about the consolidation of Maine's pulp and paper mills.

Between 2011 and 2016, five of them closed. Then in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, the pulp digester at the Pixelle mill in Jay blew up. More than 170 workers were laid off. The digester and the pulp mill were not rebuilt and Cole and other contractors lost access to a crucial market.

"It's a shame because we had the best thing going anywhere in the world here and paper's still being made, it's just being made in other places," he says.

Like so many other industries, logging has also seen market curtailments from the pandemic. The federal government is providing $200 million in relief for those who lost at least ten% of their business.

But that's for loggers across the country, and Dana Doran says it's not enough. As of last week, he says nearly 300 applications had been filed in Maine alone. Logging contractors are also asking for more money to expand a community college training program that has produced 70 graduates over the past five years.

"I'd say probably one of the top priorities is job training," Doran says.

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said he'll work with Golden to try to secure some additional funding for the program and for other ways to help the industry survive.

"We need this industry. When you think about what we're going through in this country with a pandemic and the boxes that showed up at our house. Those boxes were created here. And what we don't want to see is these family businesses go away," he says.

According to the USM study, before the pandemic, logging contractors in Maine employed nearly 4,000 people and were indirectly responsible for the creation of another 5,400 jobs.