The big news in forestry this week has been the announcement of the imminent closure of Madison Paper Industries. This is the the latest in a string of paper mill closures that has afflicted the state of Maine over the past decade (I recommend checking out Darren Fishell’s visualization of the crisis). The news, lamentable as it may be, only confirms what we already knew: the paper industry is well past its heyday; nonetheless, considering the importance of the pulpwood market for forestry, it is an announcement that has been on the forefront of my mind. From scanning most that has been written about this in the media, I don’t think it would be too controversial to say that the general perception is that long-term outlooks for forestry’s role in Maine’s economic future are bleak. With such implicit and explicit pessimism voiced all over the state, I keep returning to the same conclusion: the forest industry needs an Elon Musk.
If you have not heard of him, Musk is a celebrity entrepreneur – and for good reason. Founder of electric vehicle company Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) and space exploration company SpaceX, Musk has made a name for himself by taking incredibly quixotic ideas and somehow making them work. Applicably, he has taken automotives and space – industries of yore that the American imagination had abandoned – and has revitalized them with a new vision; and the results have been what most thought beyond possible. Having watched his companies over the years, my status as a detractor has gradually changed to that of a huge fan after seeing these absolutely astounding feats. Musk has shown that launching costs can be drastically reduced by reusing rockets, just as he has proven that electric vehicles need not come at the cost of luxury, performance, or even price. But for me, just as interesting as the complete redesign of forgotten industries is the premise on which these companies are built.
Musk’s companies (as I understand them) seem to operate on what could be called “if only” propositions: if only electric batteries could be cheaper and better, we could do away with fossil fuels; if only rocket boosters could be reusable, we could colonize Mars. In forestry, particularly in light of the current “economic crisis,” it is a question of “if only there was a market for this wood.” That is where I believe the example of Musk truly shines. Though they may seem distant to us at present, there do exist opportunities for new pulp markets beyond paper that could be only one bold entrepreneur away. Bioethanols – fuels created from wood and wood byproducts – may prove to be a burgeoning business as airlines adopt and invest in them. Nanocellulose, a microstructure derived from wood fiber and rich in applications such as electronics and flexible screens, provides bright potential. New uses for pulpwood can even be found through ever-improving and innovative mill technology, which promises to extract more valuable and diverse products from smaller and more imperfect logs.
It is probably unrealistic to hope for an eccentric billionaire to come along and throw money at these risky ventures, but that’s not my point. Having an Elon Musk at our disposal is not a necessity. All Maine needs is an aggregate of people with similar ambition, vision, and imagination. It is certainly this that has gotten us where we are today. Fifty years ago, our current industry would have been unconscionable: processors for harvesting and other marvelous high-tech behemoths prowl our timberlands; cutting-edge mills produce lumber with impressive tolerances; satellites send spatial information to machines for precise harvests. In addition, an ever-expanding understanding of genetics has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for insect and disease resistance, and most importantly, landowners have implemented progressive and scientific management plans, tailored with an eye for the future. Far from being a “curse” that has lagged technologically and discouraged acquisition of skill, forestry has fostered a skilled workforce, moving Maine into the future.
It is beneficial to have a diversity of industries in the state of Maine, and paper’s decline has certainly had enormous costs; but I am confident that forestry’s best days are still ahead. As a prerequisite, foresters must look to tomorrow. Looking at the crown of the tree, you will see stagnation: the trees are old and the branches are dying. Fix your eyes to the floor, however, and you will see an ocean of green. Thousands of trees stand ready to take the place of the terminal titans. The forest will not die; indeed, it will grow, change, and become healthier in ways currently unimaginable, just as it has done in the past. If we keep our eyes to the forest floor and do so with Musk’s indefatigable vision, Maine’s forest products industry will prove to hold the keys to our future.