By: Sen. Susan M. Collins
Throughout Maine’s history, our forest products industry has created good-paying jobs, driven local economies, and sustained rural communities. It is a linchpin of our State’s economy, generating an estimated $619 million in economic output and providing $342 million in income to around 9,000 Mainers.
Across the nation, this vital industry was already facing significant headwinds due to a changing 21st century economy and unfair trade practices. Here in Maine, the industry is further hampered by the explosion at the Androscoggin Mill in Jay, the shutdown of the paper machine at Sappi in Westbrook, and the announcement by Seven Islands that it has shut down its contractors through September.
COVID-19 has only compounded these challenges. The logging industry has experienced a steep decline in demand for wood fiber since the coronavirus pandemic began, leading to an estimated 20 percent or more drop in the timber harvest this year.
Maine’s family logging and timber hauling businesses need our support. That is why I have joined with Rep. Jared Golden to introduce the bipartisan, bicameral Loggers Relief Act that would provide critical financial assistance to the skilled professionals who work in this industry in order to help them get through this difficult period.
Congress has already created programs to provide COVID-19 relief for farmers and fishermen. Our bill would establish a new program at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to provide direct payments to timber harvesting and hauling businesses that can demonstrate they have experienced significant economic hardship compared to the previous year. These businesses would qualify for direct payments from the USDA.
The program envisioned in our bill is modeled after the USDA’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program, which has been providing direct relief to growers and producers experiencing dramatic drops in prices and overall business activity due to the pandemic. Specifically, our legislation would provide payments to eligible log harvesting and hauling businesses that have experienced at least a 10 percent loss in revenues as compared to the same timeframe last year. Those who qualify would receive direct payments and would only be permitted to use the funds for operating expenses, including payroll.
The urgent need for assistance for this industry and its skilled workforce was described by Duane Jordan of Waltham, whose 80-year-old family business shut down its logging operations in April due to the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. “For the first time in my 40-year career, my sons and I have decided not to return to the forest for the summer season,” said Mr. Jordan. “We will wait until fall and then choose a path forward…What a shame it would be to lose the talent of my sons and our valuable crew from the Maine Woods!”
I come from a forest-products family. There are few enterprises that require more faith in the future and respect for the past. It is essential that existing, generations-old businesses are supported at this difficult time. It also is essential that young people in forest-products families have the opportunity to live and prosper in the communities they love. As the industry continues to cope with the impact of the pandemic, I remain committed to pushing for direct assistance for our loggers.