Educating lawmakers and public about one of Maine’s biggest industries
When the Maine Legislature is in session Patrick J. Strauch spends a lot of his time at the state Capitol.
The executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council, Strauch talks to legislators and testifies before committees. Not just the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, but committees on taxation, labor, natural resources, education, transportation, you name it. That variety is indicative of the broad range of issues affecting the forest products industry.
Strauch, 55, has a bachelors degree in forest management and a masters in silviculture from the University of Maine. He got his start as a forester for St. Regis Paper Co. and U.S. Gypsum. He then got into management of recycling and trucking companies, becoming a regional vice president and director of the Sawyer Companies of Bangor. He joined the Council in 2001 as director of the Sustainable Forest Initiative and two years later became the executive director of the 350-member organization. He and his wife Nancy live on a farm in Exeter. They have three children.
Strauch said helping Maine legislators, regulators and the public understand the Council’s views is his mission. It can mean long, tiring, sometimes frustrating days, especially during the legislative session. But it’s rewarding, he said. Council members are “down-to-earth people, interested in the environment, in being good employers, in providing good jobs, in seeing Maine succeed. It’s working to reflect that group of honest, hard-working people that keeps me going.”
Earlier this month, Forests for Maine’s Future writer Joe Rankin sat down with Strauch in a conference room at the Council’s forest green (what else?) building at 535 Civic Center Drive in Augusta to talk about his work and the issues facing an industry that annually contributes billions to the Maine economy.
Who does the Maine Forest Products Council represent and what is your mission?
We’re a trade association, been around for over 50 years. We have loggers, truckers, foresters, paper mills, sawmills, biomass energy plants, pellet plants, particle board manufacturers. In addition we represent about 8 and a half to nine million acres of commercial forestland. Our members are pretty strong competitors outside but we bring them in and try to find common ground, but agree to disagree sometimes. We don’t shy away from tough issues and, if need be, fight pretty hard for our point of view in the legislature. But since I’ve been here we’ve been building coalitions and doing a lot of collaborating and I think that’s a strength as well. I think we are building a reputation as an issues-driven organization. That’s important to us. We’ve always gotten involved in the politics, but we will work with anybody who can agree with our platform.
Who are you developing coalitions and collaborations with that you haven’t before?
We’ve built a natural resource network representing fishing, farming, forestry. MFPC, SWOAM, Maine Potato Board, Maine Farm Bureau, Maine Aquaculture Association, Sportsmen’s Alliance of Maine, the Maine Snowmobile Association, Maine Guides. We realized we had a lot in common. On the other side, I’ve been really supportive of the Keeping Maine’s Forests initiative. That’s where we have built relationships with a broader spectrum of non-governmental organizations — environmental groups. That’s been pretty interesting to be sitting across the table from people that have been in adversarial positions to the council over the years. Reaching out to each other and finding the common ground in the importance of the forest is in everybody’s interests.
Are you finding more common ground with environmental groups these days?
There are some signs of progress. I see some polarizing positions. But I think that is beginning to change, as long as we can keep a dialogue going and think collectively about our forests. We have to find a way to keep them healthy. It’s no longer ‘create a wilderness area,’ it’s saying the working forest is a pretty good model. Conservation easements are a model that seems to work. When you really understand the working forest you can say that Maine needs to have markets for its forest products. So then you look at manufacturing and ask “what do you need to be competitive?” That’s when we start talking about the cost of energy or the cost of health insurance.
What issues are you focusing on right now?
The tree growth tax is something we’re constantly educating new legislators about. We get involved in filing a brief on the Goose Rocks Beach case, which talked about permissive use of private land. We have a special interest in the unorganized territories, so we were pretty involved in reforming LURC to the Land Use Planning Commission. That was important because we saw the policies in that area were moving in the wrong direction. So we worked hard to have that body focus on planning and representing the region versus the interests from other people in other parts of the state. We’re watching over mining because there are metal deposits on various landowners’ lands, with differing interests. But we really think it’s important to ask the question, can we do mining in Maine in an environmentally safe way or not? We get involved with wind farms because member landowners own the ridges they want to develop wind farms on.
Talk a little bit about the Council’s take on Maine’s energy situation and how it affects your members.
The issue of energy is a big issue for the Council: the cost of energy, wind power, and wherever we’re going with generating energy from wood products, be it burning wood for fuel in biomass boilers or extracting chemicals and creating our fuels in manufacturing. We’re doing an economic analysis of energy issues. I want to capture the kilowatt hours we’re producing because that’s another contribution we’re making. For the longest time our paper mill members have been generating their own energy and now they’re gearing up to generate more energy and sell the surplus. They’re in a position to do that because they have the efficiencies of co-generation: they’re capturing both the electrical load and the thermal load. Our stand-alone energy plants are also seeking creative options for their business model.
The council lobbied hard to get the merger of the state’s agriculture and conservation departments through. Why was that so important to you?
I think if you represent 3 percent of the total budget in all the natural resource departments you’re vulnerable. We’re always going to have this debate about whether can afford to have these separate agencies. We fought against a merger in past administrations because it was kind of forced down our throats. But (Gov. Paul) LePage came to us and said, ‘is this something you want to do? We’re not going to do it if you don’t want it.” And it allowed us to really talk about it and define the structure. So we took the opportunity. It was a practical approach.
Do you think with a bigger department you’ll be able to make your voice heard or you will be less vulnerable to regulation?
We’ll always be fighting that battle. The history of forestry in government is that we were pushed into something called the Department of Conservation. At one time we were our own stand-alone department. Later there was a Department of Conservation and a Department of Agriculture. Now we’ve turned this into a Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. People need to see that identity emerge from something called conservation. That term — conservation — has been hijacked for too many years. I’m a conservationist. Foresters, wildlife biologists, loggers are in many ways the quintessential conservationists. But somehow that term comes across in policy as the idea of public land and more of a preservationist attitude. We think this was an important step toward breaking out of that mold.
Keeping Maine’s Forests was formed around the threats to Maine’s forests. What do you see as the biggest threat ?
Bugs. We’re gearing up right now to deal with spruce budworm. It’s coming back. Myself, Bob Wagner of the University of Maine and Doug Denico from the Maine Forest Service are the steering committee for a group of people that wanted us to get together and deal with spruce budworm. The landowners wanted us involved; the mills too, because it’s significant. We don’t know what we’re facing. There are some things that are different and some things that might be the same. And last time around the budworm issue led to all sorts of policy questions about spraying and clear cutting, which led to the forest practices referendums of the 1990s. This time around we have an opportunity to plan and inform the public about the pending threats.
You said bugs, plural?
Balsam woolly adelgid, hemlock woolly adelgid, emerald ash borer. They are why monitoring by the Maine Forest Service is important to us, as is inventory information which will help prevent any bad policy decisions based on innuendo.
What about fragmentation and development of forestland?
In the north country, when we looked at those issues, maybe you have smaller parcels relative to the era of Great Northern Paper, but parcel size is still larger than anywhere else and ownership of private land is pretty constant. We haven’t seen people take it out of tree growth. When you look at development in the unorganized territories, 95 percent is within a mile of a public road. So we didn’t buy into the hysteria that fed into some of the policies that were being developed for that region. Conservation easements have been a great tool and they’ll continue to be a good tool going forward. Outright purchase of land by the state is a concern to us. We like to see that reserved for very special reasons. Part of what we’re trying to do is build confidence in investing in Maine’s forest industry. We need to show that there’s a future in it and we need policies and the cost of doing business in Maine to be competitive to support that.
What about the issue of jobs and labor availability in the forest products industry?
It’s a real important issue. We’re competing in a global economy so we’ve seen tremendous increases in productivity. If you walk through Stratton Lumber or Moose River Lumber or Pleasant River Lumber you’re going to see pretty sophisticated electronics, people x-raying logs, calculating the value of the log. Even during these tough economic years, sawmills have put a tremendous amount of money into capital improvements. You’ve got fewer people producing historic levels of lumber and paper. It’s the same in the paper mills and the woods. The industry is still contributing around $8 billion to the Maine economy. The average wage in the industry has increased dramatically. I think these events create a perception that there aren’t opportunities. The Irving mill in Portage is evidence of new opportunities. There will be jobs. There may not be the number of jobs there were. But those are still great jobs. The valuable logging operators have a knowledge of hydraulics and electronics and stewardship principles. We need to do a better job promoting the professionalism of Maine loggers. We’re looking to find more simulators that can go into vocational school classrooms to get people interested in a career in the industry. We’re having trouble finding laborers in our sawmills and engineers for sawmills and paper mills. We’ve got a huge retiring workforce. The question isn’t necessarily about creating more jobs but finding replacement workers for our retiring workers.
How do you think sustainability certification has helped the industry?
We looked at it as sort of our social license to practice forestry. It came on strong in Maine after the referendums. We recognized that innuendo and false information was driving policy. So what do you need to do to show that you are good stewards of the land? A third party that would offer authenticity. It’s gone a long way to assuring people of the long term sustainability of the forests.
MFPC has recently been involved with a fisheries improvement program. Talk a little about that.
Certification got us thinking about stream crossings and how to do those, how to ensure fish passage. At the same time there was a big legislative initiative to try to push us into more regulations involving stream crossing and fish passage. I said, ‘wait a minute, we’ve been doing great things. I don’t want our members to be further regulated. I think we can demonstrate a much more proactive voluntary system.’ I knew we had a great story to tell about our brook trout fisheries. We teamed up with Maine Audubon to put together programming. They appreciated our knowledge of adult education in training loggers and they incorporated that into how to deal with towns and other parties, created a series of workshops. It’s not a cookbook approach. You’ll see some landowners who have designed new precast systems for crossing brooks and some that use concrete blocks, some that use culverts. And it’s done in a way that is practical. We say identify the priority areas and when we’re working in those areas we’ll do the improvements. It’s not a regulation that says all culverts must meet this particular standard, it’s an expectation we’ve created in the field that says we want to achieve this kind of success and do it through continuous improvement.
A lot of your job seems to be getting your message out?
I think the Maine public understands the importance of our industry, but they don’t understand the details. They understand it’s a pretty “green” business, but it is so easy to form opinions and stereotypes about the business that are inaccurate. When I get out and see the people of this industry it’s what keeps me going. They’re good people. They’re providing good jobs. It’s a good way of life.
Joe Rankin is a forestry writer and beekeeper. He lives in New Sharon.