Inflation hits the Maine logging industry
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Rising fuel prices, equipment costs and supply chain delays are squeezing loggers in Maine. The challenges began two years ago, but now inflation poses tough questions for the industry. Nicole Ogrysko from Maine Public Radio has the story.
NICOLE OGRYSKO, BYLINE: Jim Robbins worries about the rising cost of paying his employees and powering his white pine sawmill near the Maine coast. But what really keeps him up at night is what he'll do if the independent loggers he relies on can't bring him the wood he needs to run his mill.
JIM ROBBINS: We grow trees really well in the state of Maine, but you've got to have the people to go out and cut that wood and bring it to the mills. And you can have a great lumber mill, but you're not going to have a great lumber mill if you don't have the loggers out there to bring that wood to the mills.
OGRYSKO: The price of diesel has doubled within the last year. It's now more than $6 a gallon in Maine. Robbins is helping truckers cover some fuel costs, and he says he's paying more now for the logs and fiber that his independent contractors bring to his mill. And while most mills in Maine are now paying a bonus to offset the cost of fuel, the last six months of volatility and supply chain challenges have forced some loggers to question whether they'll continue on in the business.
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OGRYSKO: For Thomas Douglass, there isn't much of a choice. He usually looks forward to the end of spring when the dirt roads dry up and independent loggers like himself return to the woods.
THOMAS DOUGLASS: Usually when we're getting ready to roll stuff out of the garage, I'm just like a kid in a candy store. I want to see things get back to work. I want to see guys get back to work.
OGRYSKO: But this spring, everything is more expensive.
DOUGLASS: It was the least I ever looked forward to going back to work after one season, I guess. Let's put it that way.
OGRYSKO: Douglass estimates the cost of running his business has gone up between 20% and 30% over the last two years, and especially in the last six months.
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OGRYSKO: But he is back in the woods checking on his crew that's clearing white birch and other trees for pulpwood.
DOUGLASS: That machine right there, I was told the other day by the equipment dealer I bought that machine from - I don't know if it was worth it or not, but its cost was another $80,000 higher a year later on a machine that was plenty expensive in the first place.
OGRYSKO: Like Robbins, some mills in Maine are paying slightly more now for raw fiber. That's helped, but the volatility has forced loggers to scale back their operations, retire or leave the industry altogether, says Dana Doran, the executive director of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine. And some aren't returning to the woods at all this spring.
DANA DORAN: They have either shut down, seen employees leave for greener pastures and they haven't been able to replace them, so they don't, or they've moved into other occupations. They are trucking other commodities. They might be trucking water, or they're trucking finished lumber.
OGRYSKO: Or they're clearing land for developers to build new solar farms. Forest economists believe the market will eventually adjust, and more mills will need to pay more for wood. If they don't, loggers will leave the business, which economists say could have a lasting effect on Maine's forest industry. But for Douglass, he is too young to retire at age 32. He might sell one of his logging machines that's sitting in the garage if he can't find and hire the crews to operate it. But it's too soon to leave the business behind, challenging as it is.
DOUGLASS: I would say it's surviving - definitely not thriving but surviving, and probably just that.
OGRYSKO: Whatever happens to the industry, Douglass just hopes it stays strong enough to eventually entice his young sons into the business.
For NPR News, I'm Nicole Ogrysko in Parkman, Maine.
(SOUNDBITE OF BENN JORDAN SONG, "LEAVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.