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From mill closures to border tensions, a new book probes the turmoil in Maine's logging industry

A Canadian log hauling truck travels north towards Canada on Rte. 201, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, near The Forks, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
A Canadian log hauling truck travels north towards Canada on Rte. 201, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021, near The Forks, Maine.

In the north woods, Maine loggers have felled trees, fended off foreign competition and navigated a major change in the woods product industry.

Former University of Maine Professor Andrew Egan has written a new book, "Haywire: Discord in Maine's Logging Woods And The Unraveling of an Industry." He's now a professor of forest resources at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Georgia.

Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz spoke with Egan about the threats, both physical and financial, that have faced Maine loggers for decades.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Gratz: And this is a book not just about Mainers, as it turns out, because major players in all of this are Canadians from Quebec who have long worked in the Maine woods.

Egan: It's not just about sort of Yankee loggers; it's about sometimes some of the tensions between the Maine loggers and those loggers who are often bonded labor coming from Quebec.

And you describe at length some of those tensions. It really has been from time to time a very contentious relationship.

And that's ongoing, I think, probably sort of resentment toward the Quebec loggers taking American jobs or deflating the pay rates that a lot of Yankee loggers feel are unfair. So, yeah, I think that's a persistent issue here.

You describe how after World War II primarily woods workers went from being employees of companies, to being independent contractors, and many of the loggers initially embrace that change. Why?

Yeah, I think they saw that as an opportunity to be their own bosses, and an opportunity to log where and when they wanted, maybe an opportunity for increased profits, since they were no longer employees of the paper mills primarily, like some of the lumber mills too. I can't say that backfired on all the loggers necessarily, but there is a strong sense that you can pick up through the literature of victimization on the part of the loggers who went from employers and received the benefits that accrue to an employee and then going to be independent contractors and realizing, well, maybe it's not as easy as I thought.

In recent years, a lot of Maine mills have closed or downsized. How is that affecting the amount of work for loggers and their working conditions?

It's introduced quite a bit of uncertainty within the logging community. So these are not small business owners anymore. They're medium-sized business owners who have a lot invested in feller bunchers, processors, forwarders. And so I think the uncertainty is hard to deal with, right? If you don't know what the markets are going to be, or where the next milll is going to close, or whatever, and you're making payments on expensive equipment or being encouraged to add equipment to your logging side. I think that's problematic for a lot of, you know, small- to medium-sized logging business owners.

Are the businesses that still want to use the Maine forest able to find enough loggers?

I think it depends on who you talk to. There's some people in the logging community in Maine who would say that we can't get enough loggers. We did some work on this when I was at the University of Maine and the title of the article was "Who will log?" It was in the Journal of Forestry, because we're seeing a breakdown in things like the familial and intergenerational attachment to logging, which really, oftentimes drives the logging workforce. It's difficult, right? Because I think in a lot of ways, we kind of value sort of the image of a lumberjack. One of the quotes from a Vermont logger in Haywire, is that, you know, 'The state of Vermont still wants some of us standing by the side of the road in plaid shirts, because we're a tourist state.' And I think that's kind of a shame, you know, to have to sit back and think, 'Oh, my, this is where we are now,' at least from this person's perspective. You know, this isn't a quaint occupation or profession. This is hard work. Lots of risks. Lots of uncertainty now, with mill closures and uncertain markets and global competition. And so, I'm hoping that there's still a sense that this is an important occupation for the state of Maine. But you know, the markets will dictate that to us.