By Roger Milliken, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
For the last 35 years, I have worked for the Baskahegan Company, which grows and harvests trees on lands acquired by my grandfather in 1920. As a longtime member of the forest products industry, I am writing in support of the proposed national monument.
Today, the Maine woods are reeling from seismic changes. Throughout the last century, the paper industry provided the economic engines in Millinocket, Lincoln, Old Town and Bucksport. Today these mills are closed, many are demolished and no pulp or paper is being produced in the entire Penobscot watershed.
In the face of this devastation, people in the Maine woods understandably seek villains to blame. They attack Lucas St. Clair for advocating a new use for less than 1 percent of Maine’s forest. They tell us a monument will drive a stake through the heart of industry. I disagree.
The proposed monument can be a vital part of the renewal of the Maine woods communities and help attract the best and the brightest to work in our forests and mills. After all, the forest industry can no longer support vibrant communities with its jobs alone.
More than a century ago, Great Northern built mills on the Penobscot River, literally carving out of the wilderness the town of Millinocket. In the 1970s, it employed thousands of people providing the town with the state’s highest income per capita. It was, indeed, a Magic City with a bustling mill, gargantuan wood yard, car dealerships and thriving schools. Touring the mill in the 1980s, I watched 20 men wield pickaroons to propel 4-foot logs down the flumes to the grinding stones. Even in 1984, it was clear that such employment could not be sustained — the then state-of-the-art mill in Madison required only two men to perform similar tasks.
Increasing productivity is essential to manufacturing success, and we can be sure the number of people required to produce a truckload of logs, a freight car of 2-by-6s or a ton of paper will continue to decline. A single mill will never again provide thousands of jobs.
Here in Maine, we also are experiencing the death of 20th century paper mills that were starved of investment for decades, as our industry favored regions around the globe, where labor is cheaper and trees grow faster. Today, we seek new investments focused on the 21st century.
Maine’s working forests should continue to be a source of livelihoods for decades to come. In this time of increasing resource scarcity, the world needs Maine’s sustainably produced forest products. But because of increasing productivity — and requirements for two incomes to support most families — our forest communities need more than one economic leg on which to stand.
Great Northern is said to have fought to keep other employers from locating in the region, protecting the workforce for itself alone. How devastating in the long term that single-focus economy has been for the hardworking people of the region.
No one can say with certainty what benefits a monument would bring. But we can be sure that, when combined with hoped-for investments in sawmills or plants producing pellets for clean wood heat, it will bring more economic activity than an investment in forest products alone.
Then a young engineer can find a job in a mill and her husband can find one in a business that serves those drawn to the monument’s beauty and recreational opportunities — employment tied to a Maine landscape that can’t be transferred anywhere else. The geographic heart of Maine could again become a place vibrant enough to attract and retain those seeking a promising future.
While understandably distressed by current trends, we who are committed to Maine’s working forest must look toward the future. A monument will not sound a death knell for Maine’s forest industry any more than Gov. Percival Baxter’s park killed Great Northern in the middle of the last century.
Instead a monument can expand the prosperity in the communities where our people live. We in the industry must ask, “What is in the best interest of all the residents of the Maine woods, including ourselves?”
We need to work together to create a bright future for those who work cutting and milling trees as well as for those who will not be able to find or do not want that kind of job. That is why I support the proposed monument and thank Roxanne Quimby and Lucas St. Clair for their foresight and generosity.
Roger Milliken is the president and CEO Baskahegan Co. and a former chair of the Maine Forest Products Council. Baskahegan Co. owns and manages 120,000 acres in Maine, some of which would neighbor the lands of the proposed national monument.