Speaker looks at state of forest products industry

ESCANABA — In recent years, the number of sawmills and pulp and paper mills in the United States has been rapidly diminishing. Shutdowns have hurt not only domestic loggers who provide timber for production, but also workers in other fields connected by the ripple effect — like packaging manufacturing and printing — when their employers have gone out of business or been forced to make cutbacks.

In 2020, Verso Corporation, which was headquartered in Ohio, announced that they would idle their paper mills in both Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., and Duluth, Minn. indefinitely. 902 layoffs were made in Wisconsin Rapids alone. This was after the company filed for bankruptcy in 2016. The 2020 downfall was connected to COVID-19, but paper needs have been dropping for years.

“When one mill closes, whether it’s in Wisconsin or Michigan or whatever, people think, ‘well, that’s terrible for that community, but at least it’s an isolated event,'” said American Loggers Council Executive Director Scott Dane.

Except that it isn’t.

Speaking at the recent Spring Celebration for the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association in Harris, Dane continued to say that mills have been shutting down around the nation and that “we are experiencing challenges that we haven’t experienced in decades.”

Dane travels around the country, meeting with loggers so that he can accurately represent their voices when it comes to legislation. He said that a few weeks ago, a logger in Virginia told him, “this is the worst it’s been in 30 years.”

The American Loggers Council reported that in a 15-month span, 50 plants and mills that work with softwood forest products have closed across the U.S., resulting in the loss of about 10,000 jobs. Not long after that press release, said Dane, representatives of the hardwood industry reached out to add that over 100 hardwood sawmills had also closed in the last 18 months.

Looking back at Verso, its Duluth mill was sold to Wisconsin-based ST Paper in 2021. Just recently, it sold again to Sofidel, an Italian company with operations in 12 countries, including eight in the U.S.

The mill in Wisconsin Rapids was acquired by BillerudKorsnas along with those in Escanaba and Quinnesec, both in the Upper Peninsula, when the Swedish company — which now just goes by Billerud — absorbed Verso in 2022. The Escanaba and Quinnesec mills both continue to operate as production facilities, which is fortunate for workers in those communities.

Billerud is reportedly a responsible company; a union rep working in Escanaba said that they’ve been the best employer compared to the last few owners of the mill, and Bill O’Brion of Lyme Great Lakes Timberlands said that Billerud works conservatively and efficiently, only fulfilling existing orders, rather than pumping out paper to stockpile.

“So when there’s not strong orders, they just slow down, and when you slow down, you don’t need as much wood, and that’s what’s (affecting) the logging force,” O’Brion explained. “A lot of what we cut and harvest in the Lake States — about 60 to 70 percent of that is pulp. So when the major customer doesn’t buy as much pulp, you just don’t need as much wood cut.”

Since the layoff of 902 people in Wisconsin Rapids by Verso four years ago, the mill itself has still been sitting idle, but there are plans to sell. Billerud has at that location been operating just a conversion facility with 120 employees, according to the company’s website.

A portion of Billerud’s latest press release reads as follows:

“In March, Billerud agreed on the divestment of the idled Wisconsin Rapids mill assets to the global private equity company Capital Recovery Group, LLC for non-paper and pulp manufacturing uses. Billerud retains the converting facility in Wisconsin Rapids and is committed to continue with the operation to convert rolls of its graphic paper and cartonboard into sheets.”

It is unclear yet where the mill will go from there.

The last Great Lakes Logging and Heavy Equipment Expo was evidence of the crisis, said GLTPA Director Henry Schienebeck. Noting that the 2023 expo was the biggest he’s seen, Schienebeck called it a bad sign, saying, “When business is good, you don’t need to go to shows.”

Some enterprising independent contractors have found work in other sectors, like using their equipment on construction sites instead of in the woods.

Continued production in and importation from other parts of the world to the U.S. indicates that there is not a lack of demand for timber and paper products, but a shift in their origin. This indicates that it is possible to restore local jobs.

Marty Ochs of Green Bay Innovation Group says that there’s no reason Wisconsin is allowing its mills to fall into decline. He said that while it’s better for large international companies to acquire American mills and keep them running than for them to crumble, he would prefer to see them return to local control, and that the State of Wisconsin has the means to support the industry.

At present, “the market is pretty much shot, unless we can do some rebuilding,” Ochs remarked. He suggested restoring recently-closed mills and investing in older existing ones so that they aren’t in danger of being forced to close if a major piece of their operation fails.

Of converters — businesses that make napkins, corrugated cardboard, etc. — “that industry is actually booming. But you know what the single biggest problem is? They’re buying paper from all over the world,” said Ochs.

Data shows that the U.S. is now the leading global importer of softwood lumber, and yet forestry practices are already in place to allow for timber to be harvested and for pulp and paper to be processed right at home.

In Michigan, especially the Upper Peninsula, forest management has been so crucial to maintaining the way of life that the state is not experiencing deforestation levels that other places — particularly other countries, like Brazil — are. Neighboring Wisconsin can say similarly.

When the woods in these regions are analyzed by biologists and experienced loggers before harvests, cutting is often done in a calculated manner, whether by parcel or thinning, in such a way that growth is maintained and the risk of running out of trees is not a concern. Theoretically, through the practice of silviculture, these places should be able to sustain themselves by harvesting and selling wood and manufacturing timber products as the forest continually regrows.


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