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The paper industry’s impact on Maine's environment was transformative. To be competitive in the market, mill owners sought to maximize yields and returns as efficiently as possible.
Forests were cut. Iconic log drives impacted water quality and limited recreational use of portions of the Androscoggin, Kennebec, and Penobscot Rivers. Dams blocked the migration of fish, and paper companies controlled water. Industrial effluent flowed freely into the rivers and air.
The impact of the paper industry helped stimulate Maine's national leadership in the environmental movement. Mainers weren't squeamish about utilizing Maine's natural resources, but diverse constituents recognized that Maine's rivers and woods were among the state's greatest assets.
Private land owners and paper companies—whose livelihoods depended on cutting trees—instituted selective harvesting and other sustainable forest management practices. Federal regulations like the Clean Water Act of 1972 legislated guidelines for environmental protections, and advocates for Maine's recreational fishing industry helped fight to clean up rivers and remove dams.
By the 1970s, the structure of the global economy had shifted, and it became cheaper to make paper in other parts of the world.
Paper remains a capital and technology intensive industry, and sustainability requires decades of foresight, planning, and investment. For much of the industry’s existence, corporate ownership and decision-making happened outside of Maine—a common theme in Maine’s economic history. Aging infrastructure, high energy costs, competition, and a decreased demand for newsprint have all eroded Maine’s former competitive advantages.
Recently, mills have closed in Millinocket and East Millinocket (Great Northern Paper Company), Lincoln (Lincoln Paper & Tissue), Old Town (Old Town Fuel & Fiber), Bucksport (Verso), and Madison (UPM Madison). From 2011-2016, over 2300 jobs were lost in the mills. Related economic impact spreads to loggers, local businesses, and municipal governments.
Six major paper mills remain: in Madawaska (Twin Rivers Paper Company), Baileyville (Woodland Pulp LLC), Rumford (Catalyst Paper), Jay (Verso Paper Company), Skowhegan (SAPPI), and Westbrook (SAPPI).
Even with recent mill closures, the paper industry is far from disappearing in Maine. Maine continues to be one of the top producers of paper in the United States. The industry is transitioning to an era where science, technology, innovation, and investment are more important than ever. The future will require fewer workers and more training. Opportunities and reinvention will vary from community to community. For many individuals and towns, the future will not include papermaking.
Maine’s North Woods are the largest undeveloped tract of forestlands east of the Rockies. These forestlands remain one of the most special and spectacular natural landscapes in the world, with the capacity to support robust economic activity—ranging from wood products, to recreation, to tourism.
Public lands, paper companies, conservation and innovation
Since the arrival of Europeans in Maine, large tracts of forestland have been held by relatively few entities, including Tribal Nations, state and federal agencies and paper companies.
The Forest Society of Maine, and other conservation organizations, the state, private landowners, industry, and others committed to the long-term vitality of the woods, have conserved more than three million acres of productive forestland in Maine, mostly since paper mills sold their land holdings beginning in 1998.
In January 2017, Our Katahdin, a non-profit organization based in the Katahdin region, acquired the former Great Northern Paper Company assets in Millinocket, including the 1,400-acre former mill site.
We know this purchase comes with enormous responsibility. We can’t promise instant results, but we can guarantee our best effort to help transform this idle industrial site into a productive, innovative bio- industrial park that leverages the comparative advantages of our region. This site is our heritage. We strongly believe in its future.
Sean Dewitt, President of Our Katahdin, January 12, 2017
Millinocket is diversifying its economy, in part, by becoming a gateway to the new Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument. Other communities are investing in biomass plants, diversified forest products, and tourism.
Since 1995, SAPPI Fine Paper has owned mills in Maine including the former S.D. Warren site in Westbrook where paper has been made since the 1730s. SAPPI specializes in coated "release" paper, used to create products including patterned car interiors, flooring, shoes, and soccer balls.