Sunday, April 13, 2008

The New Hampshire working forest is in crisis

The New Hampshire working forest is in crisis

I HAVE OWNED forestland since 1956. When I was 11, my father encouraged me and my two older brothers to purchase a woodlot in our home town of Orford. We did, and we still own it and manage it as a sustainable forest today. Since then, my wife, Sheila, and I have purchased 2,800 acres of forestland. We have a couple of logging operations going on nearly every year.

As one who has been active within the forest community, I believe there is a crisis in New Hampshire's working forest. When I talk about the working forest community, I am thinking about the forest landowners, tree farmers, maple producers, loggers, truckers, foresters, chip and saw mills, wood-to-energy plants and all the employees, as well as all those businesses that support our forest industry, such as the equipment manufacturers, sales and part suppliers, banks and fuel suppliers.

The state Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) shows annual revenue of $1.2 billion just in the forest products industry. This number more than doubles when you factor in the dollar impact our forests have on recreation, hunting and fishing, tourism and other positive benefits to our state. This is one of the many reasons New Hampshire was just ranked as the most livable state in America.

Let's review some facts: In 2006-07 the Fraser pulp mill in Berlin closed forever. Three months ago, the Wausau paper mill in Groveton closed, and a few weeks ago cutbacks were announced at the Fraser paper mill in Gorham. Hundreds of mill workers lost their jobs. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. The men and women working in the forest, supplying the nearly 1.3 million tons of wood fiber to these mills, have also taken a hit. Some try to hang on; others are gone. With fewer loggers working, there are fewer logs available, which has put an additional strain on our saw mills, and if that isn't enough, the so-called environmental groups are suing the U.S. Forest Service and have all but stopped logging in the White Mountain National Forest, which many of our mills count on.

We have lost important low-grade markets and now we are losing our infrastructure. What's happening is not unlike what happened to the New Hampshire shoe industry decades ago, except the collapse of our forest industry and its connection to the many forest benefits would have a much greater impact on our state's economy.

Everyone in the forest food chain is being squeezed to the point of no return. As a forest landowner, I checked my stumpage values of more than 25 years ago and found that I received almost twice as much for hardwood pulp at that time than I do today. Loggers and truckers, mills and anyone else using diesel fuel at $4.25 per gallon (and climbing almost daily) are being crushed by these huge fuel bills, along with higher insurance, labor and equipment costs, with likely no chance of passing on these costs. This, along with ever-increasing state rules and regulations and added or higher fees, is having a crushing impact on our business and owning forestland.

Many who have been in this business all their lives say they have never seen things this bad. Others say in the past you could just work longer hours and seven days a week to make ends meet; but that won't work this time around.

We know the wood fiber is there. Forest landowners are unwilling to give their wood away; all we need is to have markets that pay everyone in the forest food chain their fair share, and you will see plenty of wood available.

We all have been hit hard by the energy crisis, but this crisis brings great opportunities for our state and the forest community by using low-grade forest products (our natural renewable resource) in a sustainable manner to produce a significant percentage of our energy needs here in New Hampshire, provide thousands of jobs and keep our energy dollars here at home. I call on Gov. John Lynch and all other elected or appointed state officials to become fully engaged in this important issue. We have reached a crisis in New Hampshire's working forest. We need to act now or our timber industry -- New Hampshire's oldest, largest continuous industry -- will be gone.

Tom Thomson operates the Thomson Family Tree Farm in Orford.