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More Maine loggers are leaving the industry, study finds

A green loader truck carries a bundle of logs as it drives past a massive pile of logs.
Ari Snider
A truck carries logs at the Irving sawmill in Ashland. The mill is one of many large employers in Aroostook County that is struggling to hire enough workers to operate at full capacity.

Inflation, worker shortages, abnormal weather conditions and low prices at the mills have made it difficult for loggers in Maine to operate in recent years.

A new University of Maine study finds the state's logging industry supported fewer jobs and generated less economic output and labor income in 2021, compared to the five years prior.

The state's industry generated $582 million in economic output, down slightly from $619 million in economic output back in 2017, the last time a similar study was completed.

Because of the volatile conditions, more harvesters and truckers are looking for ways to diversify their businesses, said Dana Doran, the executive director of Professional Logging Contractors of Maine. Nearly 63% of contractors, for example, say they've turned to construction or road maintenance to supplement their income.

"Folks are looking at other areas that they can make a living at, and they're diversifying into a multitude of other areas," he said. "That's the planning that they're doing is basically planning their off-ramp. "That's not beneficial because every mill in the state right now needs wood. Well, they're not going to get it because the logging capacity isn't there."

Doran said he hopes that mills around Maine recognize the dwindling capacity and make long-term commitments to buy material from those logging companies at fixed prices. Without those commitments, he believes the state's industry will continue to shrink.

Jobs in Maine's logging industry fell by 15% over a seven-year period, according to the University of Maine and PLC study. Nationally, logging industry jobs shrunk by 9% during the same time span.

Maine's logging industry supported a total of 5,600 direct and indirect jobs in 2021, down from 9,000 in 2017.

The number of jobs has dipped, in part, because of the Jay mill explosion three years ago, which Doran said reduced consumption across the state by nearly 2 million tons a year. But as inflation has increased their operating costs and prices have stayed low at the mills, Doran said some loggers have fled the business.

Average wages, however, have risen significantly over the last seven years. In 2021 the average annual pay for loggers topped $65,000, an increase of 37% since 2017. Earnings have gone up due to inflation and because logging companies are competing for a dwindling pool of workers, Doran said. That's created a new set of challenges for logging companies.

"They either get out-competed by somebody else that is in another industry for their people, or they choose to shut equipment down for a period of time, because they just can't afford to hire those people," he said. "It's a blessing and a curse all at the same time."

Doran estimates 5-to-7% of logging contractor members have retired or left the business within the last year, and the number is likely higher across the state. Few loggers have succession plans in place for when they retire or leave the business, and Doran said more harvesters and truckers are discouraging their children from entering the industry.

"These are multi-generational businesses. But they don't really know where to turn other than to sell their equipment," he said. "The value that they have is in the equipment that they own. Their only succession plan — if they tell their children truly not to get into the business — is to sell that equipment and retire."