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Opinion: Preparing for Maine’s future without paper mills

February 22, 2019

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Phoebe Zipper

Growing up in Orono, Maine, I was never far removed from Maine’s paper industry. On some days, when the wind was right, the acrid scent of the paper mill in Old Town would waft down the Penobscot River and into my house. Freight trains rolled by every week carrying the white and black liquor used and produced in the papermaking process. On the way to Hannaford, I regularly passed the mill with its tall towers belching smoke, huge vats of mysterious chemicals and mountains of wood chips ready to become pulp.

Nowadays, the Old Town mill doesn’t smell anymore and its towers no longer smoke. It has changed hands several times during my lifetime, and during my junior year of high school, it stopped running altogether. This was not an isolated occurrence—countless other mills in the state, from Madison to Millinocket, have also ceased operations in recent years. Out of the eleven paper mills that operated in Maine in 2014, five have since closed, either due to poor markets or because of shifting ownership. Some are already being demolished, such as the one in Bucksport, while others, like the ones in Old Town and Madison, stand dormant, abandoned by the international corporations that bought them and promised revitalization. It’s a familiar pattern in this northeastern corner of mostly post-industrial America, and with demand for paper decreasing and international competition increasing, it seems as though it’s only a matter of time before all of Maine’s paper mills go under. Whether or not this day might ever come is up for debate, but Maine needs to be prepared for the loss of one of its longest-running industries, and our mill towns need to find new ways to support themselves.

One promising solution may be through the promotion of recreation. While Millinocket, an isolated community in northern Penobscot County, closed its mill in 2014, it has seen a boost in tourism from the recent establishment of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Other mill towns like Rumford and Madison, located on the Androscoggin and the Kennebec, could feasibly draw on their locations and proximity to outdoor recreation centers like Sunday River and Sugarloaf to stimulate a new post-paper economy. In others, dam removals and water improvement projects might promote the return of sea-run fish and would open rivers once choked with development to canoeists and anglers. This has already been done on the Penobscot River, and it could certainly be done elsewhere in the state.

Another option may be investment in other industries. Bucksport, though now struggling without its mill, hopes to break ground on a new large-scale salmon farm on the mill site this spring. With ideas like the Green New Deal floating around in the political ether, it’s not inconceivable that mill towns could repurpose their economy around renewable projects like wind or solar farms. Biomass energy generation, which uses many of the same products as papermaking, could also be employed as a greener alternative to coal and natural gas plants.

The state itself must also secure pathways for former millworkers to find jobs, even if these jobs no longer involve working in a mill. Job training programs must be fortified, and more support must be given to our technical schools, community colleges and state universities so that laid-off workers can be reintegrated into the workforce. The state must strengthen social services, especially in the face of a rising opioid epidemic which disproportionately afflicts the unemployed.

While the sudden decline of an industry—especially one so rooted in our state’s history—may be uncomfortable, there are certainly ways to surmount the initial challenge. As several mill towns have already demonstrated, there are a range of possibilities for future economic success, provided that state and local residents are willing to support the transition from paper to other industries and provided that the state broadens its safety net to facilitate this transition. And though the smell of money may no longer hang over Old Town in the years to come, I’m confident that it, along with Maine’s other former mill towns, will forge a new path. I’m excited to see what their futures hold.

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